A film review by Craig J. Koban August 28, 2020


2020, R, 92 mins.

Lili Reinhart as Grace Town  /  Austin Abrams as Henry Page  /  Sarah Jones as Suds  /  Bruce Altman as Toby

Directed by Richard Tanne  /  Written by Krystal Sutherland, based on her novel


In the wrong creative hands, Amazon Prime's CHEMICAL HEARTS - based on Krystal Sutherland's novel - would have been nauseatingly melodramatic and painfully hard to swallow as a high school coming of age drama.  

Thankfully and in large part because of some fine writing and authentically rendered performances, the film emerges as an uncommonly perceptive, genuinely moving, and sensitive portrayal of adolescent heartache, loss, and first love.  And all of this is anchored by its two naturally in tune lead actors in Lily Reinhart and Austin Abrams, both delivering career making work.  There are multiple elements contained within this story that certainly will roll many an incredulous eye, not to mention that not every character contained within is a fully fleshed out as its pair of main lovers-to-be, but CHEMICAL HEARTS nevertheless speaks to the throbbing pains of teenage uncertainty when it comes forging intimate relationships, and it contains many moments of raw honesty. 

The basic set-up of this film has been the stuff of the high school genre since its basic inception.  We have one teenage suitor that's shy that unavoidably falls head over heels in love with a limitlessly attractive, but damaged goods (mentally and physically) girl that seems hopefully unattainable.  Yet, director Richard Tanne manages to portray this type of well worn material with a keen eye for observational detail.  The main characters here feel like they're populating the same space of countless other young adult films, but they're shown with so much more depth and nuance.  When we first meet Henry (Abrams) he has high aspirations to become his school newspaper's chief editor, and outside of that he yearns to get solid grades and gain admission into a top tier university.  He doesn't have much time for love and romance, even though he's a closeted romantic, but he's so awkwardly introverted around girls that he's never managed to maintain any type of lingering relationship with one.  He does have a few BFFs in La (Kara Young) and Muz (C.J. Hoff), but that's it.  By his own voiceover admission, he really only has two friends in the world. 



Regardless of his lack of luck with the ladies, Henry decides to focus all of his energies on nabbing that editor job at his New Jersey based high school, but fate - as it tends to do - steps in when his faculty advisor grants his wish, but only if he partners with a new girl at the school, Grace (Reinhart).  Grace is a beauty, to be sure, that Henry finds himself instantly smitten with, but she also seems to have a dark and mysterious past: She walks with a cane and a semi-painful limp, which hints at past trauma or injury, but it's something that she tries to keep closed mouthed about.  Rather begrudgingly, Grace opts to help Henry in his newspaper editor duties, even though she's almost toxically anti-social and emotionally aloof.  Obviously and rather predictably, the pair start spending a lot of time together, and the level of closeness that they feel with each other slowly, but surely grows.  But the main elephant in the room is Grace's physical impairment, which Henry begins to obsessively research on social media.  When Henry does indeed learn the horrific past incident that Grace had to tragically suffer through (which cost her a loved one and any ability to walk and function normally), he seems even more drawn to her.  These two eventually form a tight bond and Grace becomes Henry's first semblance of an actual girlfriend, but as he grows to learn it's a union fraught with an awful lot of psychological scarring and baggage. 

Again, CHEMICAL HEARTS has the superficial facade of a typical high school romance drama, but it manages to throw many sneaky narrative and thematic curveballs at viewers to shake up their preconceived expectations.  Many of the most tired genre conventions peak through here and there, but this film manages to work around them by presenting Henry and Grace's courtship in the least perfunctory manner possible.  Grace has demons that impede her from forming meaningful ties with people, mostly out of intense survivor guilt.  She wants to let people in, but she can't.  Henry understands all of this and tries to emotionally break through to her, and when he does he feels euphoric.  Unfortunately, Grace's tormented psyche throws up more defensive barriers just when Henry feels that he's made real progress with her.  And even when they do have sex (in a pitch perfectly rendered moment of awkward immediacy), it doesn't seem to segue into a more fruitful relationship.  In anything, their time together becomes more complicated and thorny. 

It's pretty rare to see high school courtships presented quite like this.  The story of Henry and Grace doesn't completely go down the same preordained path we're anticipating, nor does it even remotely end with a rosy and happily ever after conclusion and sense of positive closure.  CHEMICAL HEARTS displays more respect for its troubled characters and the intelligence of its audience than most films of its ilk, especially for the way it captures the tumultuous nature of first time love.  The love that Henry and Grace share is clumsy and fraught with constant, chaotic tension.  Henry probably has no business being with this broken girl, and she probably has no business leading him down a path towards making him think there's a nurturing future together with her.  CHEMICAL HEARTS wisely understand the pathos, confusion, and misguided nature of young people falling in love for perhaps the wrong reasons.  And how refreshing is it that this film is rather healthily rated R?  This is not an immaturely crass high school film (like so many others in the past), but rather one that treats the adolescent experience with a tasteful frankness that shows its youth acting like, well, modern youth.  It creates a bit of a paradox, though, as no one under 17 is technically allowed to see this film, even though it contains subject matter that most young and old teens have experienced on a daily basis. 

Reinhart and Abrams have such rock solid and endlessly credible chemistry on screen together, which works small miracles when some aspects of the writing fails the film built around them (I'll elaborate in a bit).  There's such a veracity to their character's social ungainliness, and their deeply guarded vulnerabilities always come from a place of dramatic truth.  Grace herself is a routinely intriguing creation that requires a really adept actor to guide us through her pain.  She's not the obligatory love interest thrown simplistically in here, nor is she one that can be "cured", so to speak, via her ties with Henry, nor is he going to easily reach a better place in his life because of his befriending of her.  Reinhart isn't an actress that I've been exposed to much before (I've never seen her on TV's RIVERDALE, and beyond that I've only watched her in last year's HUSTLERS), but she crafts such a richly multifaceted performance here that could have been horribly bungled by a lesser performer.  She's sensational here, as is Abrams, who reminded here a bit of Timothee Chamalet in the way he brings such a soft spoken thoughtfulness to his role.   

It's highly regretful, though, that some things built around this resoundingly strong performance foundation hits the wrong tone deaf notes.  There's one side character, for instance, in Henry's sister that just happens to be a doctor that engages in some bizarre monologues about how the body's nervous system works during heartache (it's all so painfully and obtrusively on the nose).  Then there's Henry's equally on the nose hobby of putting back together broken Japanese ceramic vases, which is so annoyingly thick in terms of embellishing the core themes and story beats of him trying to mend the mentally fractured Grace that you wished that it was excised from the film altogether.  Even more lackluster is the exasperating lack of development of the friends in Henry's inner circle.  It could be said that CHEMICAL HEARTS is Henry and Grace's film, but the secondary characters jump in and out of the foreground of Henry's life without much of a narrative purpose; they come off more as dutiful props than flesh and blood people.  Still, CHEMICAL HEARTS has its - ahem! - heart in the right place chronicling the warts and all trials and tribulations of teenage longing, and the story here finds compelling ways of showing its young people trying to fall in love, but having great difficulty doing so because of some harsh realities and barriers.  In particular, I appreciated how less than squeaky clean and perfect these characters were and how they were more defined by their problems, insecurities, and past wounds and less by whether or not they'll hook up and permanently be together.  There's more than enough twisting and turning of the genre troupes here to warrant making CHEMICAL HEARTS as easy addition to your streaming queue.   

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