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Chemical Hearts presents the world of high school as one of teenage limbo
by Jeremy Fogelman
Star rating: ★★
How many high school “slice of life” movies have there been? More than I can count off the top of my head, that’s for sure -- they often tend to be more in the comedic or comedy/drama direction than straight drama, but it’s not like that’s an unknown genre either. I suppose it makes sense that anyone would try it -- if you were in high school, likely you remembered it as hard or mixed as best. The perfect place for drama and to try to say something important and eternal, emphasis on “try”.
Chemical Hearts comes from writer/director Richard Tanne in his sophomore film effort, although the movie is based on the book “Our Chemical Hearts” by Krystal Sutherland. The movie focuses on seventeen-year old Henry Page (Austin Abrams), a privileged white kid who fancies himself sensitive and talented at writing. As the movie starts, we learn that Henry has been craving the editor-in-chief position at the school newspaper, which I suppose is meant to be hard-hitting on one side and filled with meaningful artistic pieces on the other side.
But he is told that instead of just being handed the position, he will be sharing it with newcomer to the school Grace (Lili Reinhart), but shockingly (to Henry) Grace turns it down. Grace walks with a cane, and has a mysterious traumatic backstory, so naturally Henry needs to figure it out because it’s not just her business, right? Well, the movie does take pains later to have Grace call Henry out for focusing too much on her backstory, but the movie also is handled almost entirely from Henry’s point of view so we get called out as complicit in Henry’s inappropriate curiosity.
Henry bonds with Grace over poetry and the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda, although he is worried about her standoffishness and frank discussion of suicidal thoughts. It is here that the movie makes an excellent point: Being a teenager sucks. It’s not exactly radical new ground, but it’s the wrapper for much of the direction of the movie.
This is contrasted to the two other, very minor relationships in the movie -- Henry’s milquetoast parents, who were high school sweethearts and are nothing but reasonable and supportive, while not being pushovers. Then there are two of Henry’s friends and fellow newspaper writers, two girls that have an extremely tiny storyline of first love in the background of Henry and Grace’s huge story. These friend characters are diverse but have no personality otherwise, so other than the fact that it’s two girls in love, it’s hard to really care about it, because so little time is devoted to them.
The movie has a sort of clichéd angle in a lot of its interactions, with often very cheesy dialogue, but the two leads are pretty good at elevating it. Austin Abrams has a sort of withdrawn, moody energy that feels like he’d be better suited to a more melancholy character, but he does well reacting in subtle ways. Lili Reinhart has a more difficult role, playing a disabled character living through trauma, and it’s clear she tried to be sensitive and accurate about it.
I think she feels like someone that ought to have been the real POV of the movie instead of Henry -- he is the normal dude, the wannabe romantic, and he’s simply not as interesting a character. It’s not a bad movie by any means, it’s paced decently and shot well enough, but in the end it does feel a bit half-baked.
- ★ - Avoid
- ★★ - Worth a rental/matinee
- ★★★ - Must See/Add to your library