Based on the novel by Krystal Sutherland, supremely talented young actors Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart play conflicted co-editors of a high school newspaper in the new teen drama Chemical Hearts.
Henry (Abrams) feels like nothing in his life worth writing about, while mysterious transfer student Grace (Reinhart) can no longer bring herself to write after struggling with the events of a tragic car accident. Her aversion to words doesn’t stop the two teens from sharing poems, stories and songs as they tentatively get to know each other over the course of their senior year, making for a somewhat melodramatic but ultimately meaningful teen love story.
Writer-director Richard Tanne captures the ubiquitous sadness of the current young-adult genre in his second feature. Since the success of John Green’s largely popular film adaptations that deal with both physical and mental illness, YA films have lacked a certain joy (unless you count light-hearted Netflix romantic comedies) – possibly because depression rates in teens have increased more than 60 percent since 2009, according to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Like its counterparts, Chemical Hearts focuses largely on high schoolers dealing with grief, trauma and the general “darkness and powerlessness” of being young.
What saves Tanne’s film from drowning in darkness and pain is its endearing lead actors. Reinhart helps us understand Grace’s trauma in ways the dialogue doesn’t; she is clearly accustomed to being mature beyond the weekly material she is given on Riverdale. Abrams continues to prove he is incredibly compelling and dynamic; so far in his career, even when sharing the screen with Ben Stiller, Keri Russell or the Emmy-winning cast of This Is Us, he still somehow manages to be the most interesting person in the room. His range is on full display in Chemical Hearts, and Henry is a different kind of young male protagonist: genuinely nice and “normal,” awkward and well-meaning.
Grace tells Henry that when people say a poem is “beautiful,” it often means they didn’t actually understand it. Chemical Hearts doesn’t quite reach “beautiful” – it often feels like a pencil sketch of a painting. But it’s possible that’s the point. The central theme is that youth is about feeling unfinished and not completely formed: “Adults are just scared kids who are lucky to make it out of limbo alive,” according to another Grace maxim. Thanks to its great performers, Chemical Hearts feels similar to its characters: it’s on its way to being something, but isn’t quite there yet.
It is an undoubtedly dark time for teenagers; seniors ended high school with drive-in graduations and will begin college on remote Zoom calls. The coronavirus is robbing all ages of normalcy and peace of mind, but the formative years of teens are being shaped by a global crisis, a national tragedy that seems like it will never end.
Chemical Hearts does little to remedy this fact, or to bring joy and escapism to its target audience. But what it might bring is comfort: that no one is alone in their pain. Perhaps young people can borrow a mantra from Tanne’s film to help them through this time: “In this moment, I am OK.”
Chemical Hearts is streaming Aug. 21 on Amazon Prime Video.