Chemical Hearts, 2020.
Written and Directed by Richard Tanne.
Starring Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Bruce Altman, Adhir Kalyan, Coral Peña, Shannon Maree Walsh, Kara Young, Meg Gibson, C.J. Hoff, Jon Lemmon, and J.J. Pyle.
A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.
I can’t think of a circumstance where I ever felt it was noteworthy to mention right off the bat a film’s rating, but for Chemical Hearts the R rating stands out, or rather its sudden jerks into darker territory widen the eyes before usually pulling back into a somewhat standard teen romance. The good news for Chemical Hearts is that faults accounted for, it’s definitely aiming higher than similar love stories while staying mostly away from romanticizing tragedy, mental illnesses, physical conditions, or diseases for hollow tears at the expense of audiences that will eat up any sappy bullshit.
It’s also a messy love story by design, which is worth applauding as it’s not necessarily easy to control teenage disorder narratives also making them feel organic and earnest. Just because something is supposed to be rough around the edges doesn’t always mean its good, so it’s probably a compliment to say that Chemical Hearts would benefit from being even rougher, especially given the wonderful performance from Lili Reinhart that tackles so much chaos in the mind and indecisiveness with empathy and likability. There are multiple scenes here that demand her to go back and forth on important decisions within the same take, and she demonstrates all of it with a level of confidence and skill that I’m not sure the rest of the film deserves.
Grace (Lili Reinhart) has transferred to a new high school following a car accident that has left her with an injured leg (she walks around with a cane), immediately finding herself hesitating about becoming editor of the school newspaper alongside Henry (Austin Abrams). She certainly has the qualifications for the position (she’s heavily into poetry and writing), but her unsureness is our first sign that something is not right. As she gets to know Henry and starts driving him home from school after walking to her house (he misses the bus from making small talk and getting to know her), more questions arise as to why she has a car but refuses to drive it anywhere. Unfortunately, Henry takes it upon himself to become a slight stalker, researching information about her online and in some cases following her around in-person unknown, where he spots her crying and having a breakdown on the football field.
Whether that’s morally justified or not by curiosity, Henry does learn that Grace is still grieving the loss of her boyfriend, and while I don’t want to go too specific into detail on that, what follows is burning passion that is love for one party and something more complicated for the other, both romantic feelings and an attempt at moving on from pain. It’s fair to say that Grace sends a lot of mixed signals, which is a crucial portion of her character that Lili Reinhart gets right by not coming across like she’s trying to use Henry emotionally, but a raw interpretation of someone lost in her mind.
Of course, we feel for Henry, somewhat of a loner (although he does have two best friends with one of them receiving a subplot of her own involving exploring sexuality that just simply doesn’t receive enough time to feel like anything but a superfluous waste) who opens the film narrating about high school supposedly being a pivotal turning point in someone’s life where they encounter numerous life-altering situations, before exclaiming he’s never experienced anything like that. He’s a writer with nothing remotely interesting to write about (which actually doesn’t make sense because midway into the movie he mentions knowing someone that committed suicide), whereas Grace can’t remove herself from tragedy to find her own words again.
It’s a dynamic that works when it comes to gravitating these two souls together, but outside of a few scenes were Lili Reinhart gets to really show off how complex and depressed this character is, Chemical Hearts is quite simple and straightforward. There’s a stronger movie in here somewhere, preferably one that sticks to exploring its inherent mature themes (the first 30 minutes, no joke, feel like a family movie.) There is also a case to be made that we are seeing this movie from the wrong character perspective, as Grace is a far more layered and intriguing character.
The plethora of supporting characters gets shafted, which clearly just comes down to Krystal Sutherland’s novel being streamlined by writer and director Richard Tanne (who actually did a terrific job making a movie out of the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in Southside With You.) Henry has a sister that literally has no character other than spouting scientific jargon about the chemical reactions from love. He also has parents that have had a perfect relationship since their own days in high school that is meant to be a juxtaposition to the messiness he is experiencing with Grace, except there’s not enough screen time for that to materialize into anything meaningful. And then there’s the third act, which is just a complete failure narratively from a structural standpoint, piling on drama previously tucked away following what could have led to a satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s hard to not at least admire Chemical Hearts for desperately wanting to shine an unconventional, dark light on love. It’s a shame that it doesn’t stick to those intentions beyond a handful of scenes that Lili Reinhart nails.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com