Soft boys, assemble! The ultra-sensitive high school melodrama you’ve been waiting for since February’s “All the Bright Places” has finally arrived, and it is not holding back. This movie has it all: An affluent teenage introvert who’s desperately waiting for something interesting to happen to him, a mysterious blonde transfer student named Grace Town(!) whose pronounced limp suggests a tragic past, a wistful voiceover track laced with pearls of wisdom like “you are never more alive than when you’re a teenager,” a queer Black best friend character who spends the whole film making out with her girlfriend in the background, so much Beach House on the soundtrack that you can practically feel the sand between your toes (one of the band’s songs even becomes a plot point), and an overreliance on a flimsy metaphor that’s meant to trigger some kind of profound understanding — in this case, the idea that heartbreak causes the same bodily response as physical pain.
Yes, “Chemical Hearts” is a prime (and sometimes almost self-parodic) example of a cinematic alchemy that will be very familiar to a generation raised on John Green novels instead of “She’s All That.” But where the likes of “Paper Towns” and “The Fault in Our Stars” were inflected with a kind of manic pixie dream magic that inspired their characters to save each other or die trying, Richard Tanne’s adaptation of Krystal Sutherland’s YA hit “Our Chemical Hearts” offers a relatively inert take on the same milieu.
Assuaging teenage growing pains like a shot of novocaine administered by a shaky hand, this tender and subdued look around the limbo between adolescence and adulthood might start with a sullen kid trying to save his crush from her darkest secrets, but it never gets swept up in the idea that he actually can — on the contrary, it steamrolls the idea of white knight salvation in order to find some beauty in the scars that can’t be healed. Buoyed by an excellent cast and a healthy awareness of how embarrassing it can be to feel young, Tanne’s low-key follow-up to Obama drama “Southside with You” should provoke a strong reaction from its pubescent target audience, even if its self-seriousness might leave older crowds with the impression that it’s just “Normal People” for virgins who have too much homework to watch a six-hour Hulu show.
“Writing has always been my passion,” protagonist Henry Page tells us at the start of this story, the character and his name raising at least two red flags before we even see his face (he’s played by Austin Abrams, who’s every bit as grounded and believable here as he was in the under-seen “Brad’s Status”). The trouble is that Henry doesn’t have anything to write about — a real hindrance for someone who’s determined to land the editor-in-chief job at his school newspaper. It doesn’t help that our boy suddenly has some unexpected competition for the job when the smart and beautiful — but tantalizingly “damaged” — Grace (“Riverdale” phenom Lili Reinhart, also an executive producer) throws her hat in the ring. Grace walks with a cane and reads Pablo Neruda poems for fun and those two things are basically enough to make her the most interesting person who Henry has ever met. When it’s decided that they’ll co-edit the paper together, it’s only a matter of time before sparks begin to fly.
But this is a rather soggy movie, and Tanne’s initial reaction is to put a damper on things whenever he can. Formulaic as they can feel, the early chapters of “Chemical Hearts” are tinged with the suspense of watching someone fall into their own trap. Drawn to Grace in the way that any insecure teenage boy might be to a pretty loner who seems to reject her own social potential, Henry — who’s lived in a leafy suburb of the Garden State his entire life — quietly casts the new girl as his very own Natalie Portman. He tries to leverage his puppy-eyed concern into some kind of love connection, but that concern tends to look an awful lot like casual stalking. We’re talking about someone whose only identifiable hobby is piecing together broken glass jars in his bedroom; does New Jersey not have TikTok?
In general, Henry struggles to strike a balance between the benign idyll of his upper-middle-class existence (Bruce Altman and Catherine Curtin play his happily married parents) and the sheer rush of cinematic possibility that scorches through his body like a starshower every time he sees Grace. It’s hard to know which of those worlds is more “real,” especially for a kid whose crush takes him to secret caves and says far-out things like “we’re all a collection of atoms that come together for a brief period of time and then fall apart” as if she’s the rare 17-year-old who really knows what that means. But Henry means well, and Grace eventually lowers her guard once he starts to understand that she’s just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for her own peace of mind.
In a less thoughtful version of this movie, the way Grace warms up to Henry might seem arbitrary or unmotivated, but one of the great strengths of “Chemical Hearts” is how well it wields that hazy imprecision. Growing up is hardly an exact science, and Reinhart’s wounded but knowing performance allows her character to figure things out without the film having to apologize for her sudden changes of heart. Tanne’s “there are shadows in life, baby!” approach to this stuff helps redeem a raft of underwritten and/or overwrought moments towards the end, and he codifies that vibe with a more patient and open-ended aesthetic than you’d expect to find in a YA adaptation; shot on a 35mm stock that can make an entire bedroom vibrate with potential, some entire scenes are captured in just a handful of static medium-wide shots that aren’t afraid to set these characters adrift in a vast sea of their own feelings.
For a story that leans so hard into (and sometimes gently pushes back against) the most cringe-worthy tropes of its genre, “Chemical Hearts” has an uncanny way of capturing the basic combustibility of teenage feelings. That doesn’t stop the movie from unfolding like the SparkNotes of a more sweeping romance — all of the ancillary characters, from Henry’s heartbroken sister (Sarah Jones) to his best friends played by Kara Young and C.J. Hoff, are reduced to window dressing — or from leaving you with the sense that Grace is still basically just a catalyst for Henry’s self-growth despite her unwillingness to be “saved.” But Tanne’s delicate touch allows for, well, a measure of grace in that. We all become someone else’s memories, even if sometimes that forces us to live on through other people’s scars. The hard part is just learning to accept that. “Don’t try to be good at it,” Grace tells Henry during one encounter that he’ll definitely never forget. “Just be here with me.”
“Chemical Hearts” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, August 21.
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