To be young and in love
When you’re a teenager, no one seems to believe in your pain and suffering, which in itself often seems to be the side effect of your body and mind growing older and leaving the hazy days of childhood behind. With it also comes first love, and ultimately and inevitably, heartbreak. This is a ripe subject for filmmakers, but it’s hard to convince the audience that what is unfolding on screen is real and equally affecting as the great loves of our lives we have yet to experience.
Chemical Hearts, adapted for screen from Krystal Sutherland’s book ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ and directed by Richard Tanne, follows young Henry (Austin Abrams) who seems to have the perfect life, if a little unfulfilled. This all changes when Grace Town (Lili Reinhart) joins his classes and newspaper at school, rocking his world in unknown and surprising ways, but Grace also comes with an aura of unremovable sadness and grief, which may prove disastrous for the both of them.
While teenage love stories rarely manage to touch upon something real, Chemical Hearts treats its young characters with a certain seriousness and respect they deserve. They’re young and foolish, but so were we, many, many moons ago. The film is veiled in hazy, muted colours which create a romantic feel, but also often evoke the texture of a trendy Instagram filter. Tanne seems to favour aesthetics over thematical consistency, but there’s no denying that every now and then Tanne and his talented cast hit on something authentic and even magical. The things that happen to these teenagers have happened to all of us; the awkward fumbling for a condom during your first time, the pain of rejection that you can feel in your bones and the harsh reality that love isn’t always enough.
Lili Reinhart, who’s also earns her first producing credit here, is convincing as Grace and isn’t afraid to make her ugly and unlikable at times. Grace is struggling with her past and while the film doesn’t dedicate enough time to truly explore this, Reinhart crafts a nuanced look at grief and redemption. Her chemistry with Austin Abrams is palpable and authentic and its easy to buy into their intoxicating, infuriating but all-too brief love. Abrams, known for films such as Paper Towns and Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark and TV’s Euphoria, carries the film with his easy-going charisma and the warmth he injects the naïve Henry with.
While films are often criticised for being overly long and indulgent and 90-minute films are praised for being easily watchable, Chemical Hearts, at 91 minutes, feels too brief. The characters don’t have time to live and breathe in Tanne’s world and most side characters only exist to deliver one or two lines rather than offer any meaningful support. Henry and Grace, while helped by great performances from talented actors, never feel fully formed, in particular Grace whose character is completely defined by her trauma. While its easy to see why the characters would be attracted to each other – both are ridiculously attractive – the film never manages to convince us why they would fall head-over-heels in love, especially since Tanne makes a point of showcasing just how different they are from each other.
Chemical Hearts isn’t a bad film in any way, but it needs another 15 minutes to flesh out its characters and deepen the emotional stakes of its fairly traditional and uninspired narrative. It’s another exciting performance from Abrams, who will hopefully soon graduate to more mature roles, and Reinhart is better here than she has ever been allowed to be in the campy Riverdale she is best known for. At its best, Chemical Hearts reminds us of how painful young love can be and how much we miss those days of secretly kissing in the library or walking home from school with your friends.
Chemical Hearts will stream on Amazon Prime from August 21.
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