by Ken Bakely
I’m not seeking to be purposefully oblique when I say there’s nothing wrong about the way that Richard Tanne’s Chemical Hearts is brought to life on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s executed quite well. It has great admiration for its characters, leads them through their development throughout the plot with sufficient level-headedness, and leaves its young target audience with some passing advice on navigating the complexities of teenage life. The problem is that there’s not a whole lot beneath these respectful veneers. It may empathetically look upon its characters, but they’re drawn with a fairly thin brush. The plotting, even as it may be, leaves little room for nuance or any truly pertinent takeaways. Said story concerns Henry Page (Austin Abrams), a high school senior who, as his name would imply, is an aspiring writer (he has just been named editor of the school newspaper). Like many a character and many a high school senior, laments the fact that little has happened to him in his comfortable suburban upbringing. This changes when he meets Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), a new student who, as her name would imply, has just transferred from the next town over. They begin working together on the paper, and he falls for her immediately. They eventually begin to bond, but Grace is highly reserved at the start: she will not disclose many aspects of her life, including why she walks with a cane.
From there, the film examines their relationship in the context of their respective anxieties and mysteries, as they gradually learn about each other (and themselves, of course). Obviously, this whole concept is extremely familiar. There are few surprises to be had in the story’s general direction. Tanne’s screenplay, based on Krystal Sutherland’s novel Our Chemical Hearts, is hardly interested in breaking new ground in the well-traversed field of coming-of-age romances, and that contributes to the frustrations that come in trying to piece the movie together. For as intuitive and intelligent as Tanne’s direction is, and as good as Abrams and Reinhart are as the movie’s leads, the story often falls back on the same basic narrative devices and character types that so many others before it have. When the film is at its most particularly troublesome in this respect, cliché-ridden dialogue is exchanged while the script dances around observations on its heavier subject matter, without ever fully charging into the discussions of heartbreak, mental health, and adolescent growth that it so clearly wants to have. Supporting characters – most notably Henry’s two best friends, Lola (Kara Young) and Murray (C. J. Hoff) – are largely forgotten as quickly as they’re introduced. The film is told exclusively from Henry’s perspective, but seldom fleshes out his surroundings.
What saves Chemical Hearts from entirely tripping down the path of its emptiest and most mawkish instincts are the moments and scenes when it takes its characters seriously. At its best, it acknowledges their pains and traumas without trying to tie them into phony, quasi-philosophical proclamations, or shoehorn them into hackneyed plot contrivances. It has to cast aside its most grandiose instincts to find its real emotional core. Tanne brings such a deft and confident touch to the film as a director that it’s curious that his screenplay is so much more discordant and shallow. Chemical Hearts takes its title from recurring discussions on the wild and volatile chemistry of how emotions are created and felt; how internal hurting can be so strong, it can assume what are essentially physical symptoms, and in the vivid hues of adolescence, this is manifested to even greater proportions. The movie considers this in a myriad of ways, but no better than when it simply allows its characters to feel these things, carefully constructing a world of possibility amidst pain, and doesn’t pour itself into a mold of the overtly structured teen romance. Cast against Albert Salas’s wistful cinematography, in soft colors that suggest memories – good and bad – being made and recollected in the future, the film comes closest to truly thriving in its quietest scenes, capturing seemingly small interactions between Henry and Grace. It’s when Chemical Hearts tries to go too big, and make all-encompassing proclamations about what it should mean or what it should say, that it rings hollow, and struggles to be about much at all.