Review: Chemical Hearts

Year: 2020
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Director/Writer: Richard Tanne (based on the novel “Our Chemical Hearts” by Krystal Sutherland)
Stars: Austin Abrams, Lili Reinhart, Sarah Jones, Kara Young, Coral Pena, Bruce Altman, Meg Gibson, Shannon Walsh, C.J Hoff, Adhir Kalyan

By Harris Dang

Austin Abrams stars as Henry Page, a high school student who seems to be rather content with his outlook on life in wanting to go into a good university and have a bright future like his parents (played by Bruce Altman and Meg Gibson). Like his outgoing parents, he considers himself to be idealistic in terms of finding love. In other words, the dreaded term, being a “hopeless romantic.” But what stands out in Henry’s situation is that he has never been in love. But all of that is about to change. Page sees the new open position to be the editor of the high school newspaper and he applies for it; only to meet the new student in his class, Grace Town (Lili Reinhart). The two are chosen to edit the newspaper and they meet up on a regular basis. Her presence in his life is enigmatic and distant yet it arouses the curiosity in Henry and the two later become more intimate. But Grace harbors a secret that will put their relationship and well-being to the test.

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From the looks of the synopsis, the story of “Chemical Hearts” (2020) (based on the novel “Our Chemical Hearts” by Krystal Sutherland) sounds quite trite — especially when you look at it in comparison to how Hollywood usually young adult love stories. But in the hands of writer/director Richard Tanne (making his sophomore effort after the romantic drama “Southside With You” [2016]), “Chemical Hearts” manages to stand out due to its sense of maturity and lack of pandering of patronizing to its target audience.

“The story is never afraid to approach serious topics that are seen as taboo in films directed towards the target audience of teenagers.”

One of the reasons why the film works is that Tanne’s insistence in not falling back on character types. There are no jocks, nerds, manic pixie dream girls and other genre stereotypes and that choice makes the drama in the film much more palatable. The audience can witness three-dimensional characters that are believable, relatable and thankfully human. Another reason why the film works is that the story is never afraid to approach serious topics that are seen as taboo in films directed towards the target audience of teenagers. There is no “afterschool special” approach to its themes that it approaches — suicide, teenage angst, views on love, death, grief, possible mental illness etc. — and there are also no easy answers or neat payoffs either.

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Thankfully, the story does approach resolutions that feel honest when the story reaches its satisfying conclusion. The film also subverts expectations of its visual motifs like the first kiss between Henry and Grace and how Henry’s skill of kintsugi (the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery) is thankfully not used as foreshadowing what you think it is. Even the parallel burgeoning relationship involving the characters of La and Miranda (played by Kara Young and Shannon Walsh) does not feel like a cute interlude but it functions as a substantial subplot that reflects the themes of the story succinctly.

“Both Abrams and Reinhart lend gravitas to their roles. While their roles may come off as frustrating due to how emotionally distant they are on first impression, Abrams and Reinhart never make their characters inert in a way that feels dull.”

The approach to verisimilitude also applies to most of the dialogue where the characters talk like human beings without resorting to worn-out platitudes or strained attempts to be hip and post-modern i.e. speaking hashtags or social media acronyms. There are some moments that feel cloying — scenes in particular involving Sarah Jones playing Henry’s sister, Sadie — but the emotional payoffs ring true and speak to the arcs of the lead characters beautifully.

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Speaking of the lead characters, both Abrams and Reinhart lend gravitas to their roles. While their roles may come off as frustrating due to how emotionally distant they are on first impression, Abrams and Reinhart never make their characters inert in a way that feels dull. Reinhart has more dramatic opportunities to show her acting chops than Abrams but they nevertheless both do quite well as they bare themselves emotionally. Like all broken pottery, the film comes with its flaws. The drama itself may veer towards melodrama  as the film reaches the third act and some of the visual motifs — the body of water with the Koi fish — and the dialogue involving the character of Sadie feels artificial in comparison to the rest of the story. But like the characters in the film, the embellishments are part of  what makes the film memorable. With solid acting from its two leads and sharp direction from Tanne, “Chemical Hearts” is a well-told young adult tale about first love that takes the high road in its storytelling; making it more dramatically satisfying and substantial than it might have been. Recommended.

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3.5 stars

“Chemical Hearts” will be showing exclusively at Amazon Prime in August 21st. Images Copyright: Amazon Studios

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