Chemical Hearts is about Henry, a high school senior, who is excited to be editor in chief for the school paper for his senior year. He's asked to join forces with recent transfer student, Grace, who is standoffish at first. Grace and Henry grow closer through Henry's persistence. Yet, while Henry is falling in love, Grace is finding it hard to move on from her boyfriend who died in the car crash that causes her to walk with a cane. The film stars Austin Abrams, Lili Reinhart, Sarah Jones, Kara Young, Coral Peña, C.J. Hoff, Shannon Walsh, Bruce Altman, Meg Gibson, and Adhir Kalyan. It is written and directed by Richard Tanne. The film is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.
Readers should know I am a fan of both teen drama and comedy. Set a film in a high school with some angst and overwhelming hormones and I'm usually on board. When I was much closer to high school age, I had a high tolerance for mopey, male writer main characters. Here it doesn't work for me for the most part. I think Austin Abrams is good in the role and he pulls off the beats, but the mumbly, romantic, middle class boy holds no real interest for me any more.
What does hold a great deal of interest for me is Chemical Hearts subplot. The whole film La and Cora flirt, get frustrated and end up hashing out their relationship problems in the background. It's an excellent edition to our main brooding pair. It's a way to bring out and make casual these two young women in a relationship. In fact there is an ease and comfort the film has with queer identity. There's a point at which Grace asks Henry if he's ever had a girlfriend, she waits a beat, then asks if he's ever had a boyfriend. In a calm, unassuming way he says no to both, rather than recoiling or retching with disdain at the thought of being with another boy. I love how deftly casual these scenes are and that they feel true and normal.
There are a lot of scenes in the film that have that ring of truth better than most films in the genre. Even Henry's moping feels real to that character. I like that despite her sort of archetypal character, Grace's feelings, emotions and actions feel very real as well. The film doesn't dwell on sentimentality despite gooey love scenes. It doesn't over heighten the melodrama that comes with grief and break ups and love. It keeps its feet on the ground.
In part, that's my struggle with wanting to like the film more. As Richard Tanne adapted the novel by Krystal Sutherland, he brought home the physical aspects of love in a way I've not scene done. It does the analytical, pragmatic part of my brain a wonderful service by a conversation between Henry and his sister Suds. She, a medical person of some kind, lets Henry know the chemical processes that the human body goes through when it feels love and heartbreak. This is an interesting way to calm someone who is overwhelmed, but I miss that grand romance aspect. Hence the struggle, I like the grounded, real approach, but I crave the yearning and the sunny skies of love. The ending saves that aspect for me in an arresting way.
I'm also arrested by the talent of Lili Reinhart. I've only seen a handful of her roles, but they have been diverse enough to make me sit up and take notice. I like that she has the range to be believably suffering, effortlessly charming, and devastatingly heartbreaking in the same film. All of that while maintaining her character's limp. The physicality between the pictures she posed for in her life before the accident and how she carries herself in the world after are an excellent transformation. I look forward to what kind of role she can pull off next.
Despite the alternate timeline history where no event interrupted the 2019-2020 school year, I like the groundedness of Chemical Hearts. The story took me in directions I wasn't expecting and I really like how the story was resolved. It's not perfect and there were times when I checked my phone, but for the most part I think Chemical Hearts is very worth your time and effort. Seek it out.