Where do you go to, why do you go?
Poetry is the language of Chemical Hearts, the new film from writer/director Richard Tanne and executive producer Lili Reinhart, based on the book Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland. Reinhart stars as Grace, a teenage girl whose life is upended after a personal tragedy. Her spirit is a subject of fascination for Henry Page (Austin Abrams), who finds himself drawn to Grace when she transfers to his school. Where does she go to and why does she go? He asks himself this question as she bobs in and out of his life and consciousness.
Henry is your typical teen boy in a coming-of-age film: dripping in ennui and unsure of his place in the world. He wants to be a writer, but he has nothing to write about. His life is by-the-numbers. He has two best friends, his parents are happily in love, and he’s comfortable in this calm life—too comfortable. He resents this complacency. But then he meets Grace.
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Grace fascinates him. She’s different. Moody, displaced, mysterious. She’s naturally beautiful, but offsets that beauty with giant clothes, a clear disregard for appearing in any specifically desirable way. She walks with a cane due to a new disability she is still adjusting to. She’s drawn into Henry’s orbit when they’re asked to co-edit the school newspaper. And she is interested in the fleeting nature of life, given her recent brush with tragedy. This faraway quality is bewitching to Henry, who craves the peculiar energy she conjures–and who romanticizes her scars.
The latter is where the key problem with Chemical Hearts comes into play. Like so many teenage love stories, it makes its female protagonist an enigma for the male hero to unlock. Henry’s quest to better know Grace comes with a hefty dose of creepy. He follows her, spying on her private moments: the grave she visits in her fits of guilt, the track where she attempts to regain strength in her leg. The text never holds Henry accountable for this invasion of Grace’s privacy. He’s getting to know her as we are, which is always at a distance that keeps us from ever really knowing anything about her, besides how troubled she is—how scarred.
Grace deserves better. And so does Reinhart, whose acting is lovely and clearly well constructed. She poured her soul into the work, but the script keeps Grace too far from the focal point for it to have much impact. Likewise, Abrams fumbles through the role. He’s a gifted actor, but the character feels beneath him.
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The other characters—Henry’s best friends, parents, and older sister—all feel undercooked. They get their moments, but not enough to amount to more than footnotes in this muddled story. Which is another shame, since the acting work is all well-done. The few breadcrumbs that we’re fed about these character, including an adorable queer romance between Henry’s friends Lola (Kara Young) and Cora (Coral Peña), tease what could have been in a script more occupied with the nuance of these characters than the central, flat romance.
Still, Chemical Hearts isn’t a chore. It moves at a nice pace, is only an hour and 33 minutes, and the poetry that laces the story together is a nice touch. There was clearly love poured into the project, and it teases more to come from young talents like Abrams and Reinhart. The film shows there’s more to come from this pool of talent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow them much room to show off.
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