Chemical Hearts (2020)

“Being young is so painful.”

Heavy on heartache and a proud bearer of truthful growing pains, Chemical Hearts is yet another entry in the long line of High School Senior Year melodramas where young adults act as the movie poster’s tagline prompts. “Fall in love. Fall apart.” And so they do. It’s heavily clichéd, unfolds with little to no surprise, and the script doesn’t quite have the charm to make us take the bait, even though its beauty is something to admire. Chemical Hearts has decent bones though, grounded in Shakespearean themes and heavily inspired by the relative lightness of John Green’s work, all of which are given flesh and blood by two very good and believable lead actors. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it certainly knows how to keep things rolling and spinning madly on. Young love has the tenacity and the energy to pull off such a feat.

It should come as no surprise that the film’s protagonist Henry Page (Austin Abrams) bears the most descriptors. He can’t verbalize thoughts but can write them with ease. He’s from a privileged family but doesn’t earn the grades to have a car. He’s ambitious in wanting to be the school paper’s editor and quirky through his practice of Kintsugi, the dated Japanese art form of breaking pottery only to mend them with gold lacquer. Henry Page is, for better and for worse, a vague amalgamation of every other male lead the genre has seen. But Abrams is a very talented and appealing young actor, and he imparts a sense of weight to a character in desperate need of relatability. It can be wishy-washy when we’re just with him, yet when Grace (Lili Reinhart, geuninely remarkable here) hobbles into the frame as the new girl from the neighboring district, the entire dynamic changes. It becomes a love story. One with shades of gray and an occasional technicolor ethos.

Henry is a predictable character, and to the easily hummed tune of this genre, so is Grace…at least for the most part. She’s reserved, so sharp, physically scarred and hindered by the great drama of her immediate past. There’s a reason she switched schools. Why she doesn’t drive and is always wearing baggy men’s clothing. It’s very important to know Henry’s nurse sister Sadie (Sarah Jones) says early on that – especially for this age group – heartache can register as physical pain. Grace is a victim of terrible circumstance and Henry is there to help and to edit whenever possible. He’s verbose but struggles with conversation. She’s outspoken but refuses to write for the paper. Together they are, at times, shared eyes and ears and voices. Earnest love can make you feel inseparable in that way. Chemical Hearts misses more than it hits, but it absolutely nails – and conveys – how young adults tend to romanticize, exaggerate, and truncate the idea of what it means to be in love instead of understanding they are in want.

Adapted from Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel (I’m guessing it’s an average read at best), writer/director Richard Tanne does a better job directing the film than he did in the writing phase, which exposes many of the picture’s prominent issues. The lead characters have depth and personalities, but outside of those two, none of the ancillary cast amount to more than mere loosely framed friends and family with unique sexual orientations and oddball wardrobe choices. That’s in large part due to the double edge sword of Chemical Hearts and its limited purview. The film is barely 90 minutes, and because of that, the time spent in and out of love will leave you swooning when you aren’t rolling your eyes at the histrionics. Worst of all, the story seriously fails to develop any characters besides its unbalanced duo, which makes for a movie that’s easy to like based on the talent involved, but impossible to love because it’s so contrived. More than anything, Chemical Hearts is just too mechanical. Too methodical. Too present here and too absent there. All of the right ideas are in place but the alchemy doesn’t quite add up. The plain structure and basic print don’t leave room for a story so in need of sprawling and lengthy cursive.

“You are never more alive than when you are young.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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