Based on Krystal Sutherland’s high school-set novel, Chemical Hearts is a multi-layered study of teen grief marred by ethical ambiguity. Austin Abrams (Euphoria, This Is Us), plays Henry, the blueprint of a male high school protagonist. With a clean jawline, wiry frame and endless supply of knitted sweaters, the auspicious writer craves a ticket out of his self-described “unremarkable” life. Escape seems imminent when new student Grace is turns up in class, a standoffish fellow wordsmith who walks with a cane and is played by Lili Reinhart (Hustlers, Riverdale).
As the pair rub shoulders and share lingering glances while working together on the school paper, Grace’s detached air, huge opal eyes and mutual intellect act as catnip to Henry. Unable to grab her attention, a few quick Google image searches of his new crush soon lead – with encouragement from his friends – to outright stalking (we’ll call this strike one). When Henry follows Grace to a local cemetery, he learns she lost her childhood sweetheart in the same car crash that damaged her leg, and the resulting wounds are much deeper than first anticipated.
As the grieving girlfriend struggling with a new disability, Reinhart turns in a guttural, commanding performance that quickly overshadows Abrams, and feels at odds with their increasingly problematic on-screen dynamic. Though earnestly framed, Henry’s motives feel uneasy. He tests Grace’s boundaries by ignoring her polite rejections, while voluntarily withholding his knowledge of the truth.
Filmmaker Richard Tanne trys hard to make their budding relationship seem bittersweet with a series of grainy montages, guitar ballads played through headphones and trips to private, intimate hideaways. Yet the relationship’s foundation is too toxic to ignore. That Grace is also perceived as damaged in the film (it’s hard to misinterpret Henry’s love of gluing back together smashed vases in his free time) only makes Chemical Hearts more harmful.
Elsewhere, the supporting characters are thinly drawn, although older sister Suds (Sarah Jones) is a standout. A doctor who’s been cheated on and is prone to panic attacks, her timely insight on the brain’s ability to withstand heartbreak offers a momentary distraction from her brother’s despair.
With the coming-of-age genre now stuffed with resilient, robust female characters who stand tall against male fragility (think Booksmart, Lady Bird and Netflix’s sickly-sweet To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before), Chemical Hearts feels outdated and unchallenging, even forgettable.
However, Reinhart’s talent shines through – and more worthwhile projects will no doubt come her way in due course. As a modern teen movie, Chemical Hearts is sadly hard to forgive. It’s best written-off as a mawkish, occasionally manipulative film that disservices the young woman that Henry so desperately wants to save.
- Director: Richard Tanne
- Starring: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones
- Release date: August 21 (Amazon Prime Video)