Okay, right off the bat, I understand that I am not the target audience for the teen angst movie Chemical Hearts. And even when I was a teenager, I didn’t appreciate teen angst movies. But the trailer for this coming of age film looked promising enough. It’s a teen romance featuring an unlikely pair of people, which seems simple enough, but there is a mystery behind the whole story as well. Very intriguing premise. But I have to wonder, did anyone making this film remember what it was like to actually be a teenager?
Chemical Hearts is based on the book Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, but the film was written and directed by Richard Tanne. I don’t know if it is a faithful adaptation of the book or not, but the end result is an uneven story about two 17-year-olds who don’t look or sound anything like your everyday, average teenagers. Maybe that’s because they are both 23-years-old.
Henry Page (Austin Abrams) is perhaps the most realistic character in the story even if his circumstances are not. He’s a high school senior and laments that he has never really had a girlfriend. He thinks of himself as a hopeless romantic and feels that he has a lot to live up to since his parents have been happily married for a bazillion years. He can drive, but he doesn’t own a car. He says that his grades aren’t good enough for one. I guess he never thought that he could get a job and buy one for himself.
Henry is excited to start his final year of school hoping to become the editor of the school newspaper. When he gets there he meets Grace (Lili Reinhart) and finds out that the teacher has decided that they will serve as co-editors of the paper. Despite her great resume of writing from her previous school, she balks at this idea. She says that she can help with the artwork of check for spelling errors, but that she has no interest in writing for the paper. Grace is moody, quiet and clearly doesn’t want to be there. She is a emo girl without the black clothing.
However, Henry is intrigued with Grace and wants to know more about this mystery girl. After he misses his school bus, Grace tells Henry that she has a car and he can get a ride from her. This is odd because Grace is walking home because she didn’t drive to school. She walks with a limp and uses a cane. When Henry asks why she doesn’t drive her car to school, she says that she doesn’t like to drive. When they get to her house, she tell him that he needs to drive the car. Then, when they get to his house, she says that she needs to get home and that “someone” will be back to pick up the car. Sure enough, an older man comes for the car and drives it away. All of this causes Henry to wonder about this girl. What secret could she be keeping and why?
Although he didn’t mean to miss his bus the first day, Henry “accidentally” does it again the next day in hopes that he can talk to Grace more. She agrees, but doesn’t say much. This little banter session goes on every day and almost every occasion features Henry saying or asking something innocently that triggers a negative reaction in Grace and she pushes the brakes on the friendship. This mystery girl slowly reveals herself to Henry, but it is clear that something isn’t quite right with her.
Nothing seems real in this movie’s universe. Most of the dialogue is super serious and it seems as if it were written for 23-year-olds rather than 17-year-olds. Henry’s older sister, a medical professional, is having troubles with her boyfriend. Instead of talking about her love life to her parents, she talks to Henry because she thinks her parents because they wouldn’t understand. Again, that “perfect” relationship. She explains how the chemicals in one’s brain gets jumbled up when one is in love and it becomes difficult to sort out when relationships go sour. Hence, the title of the movie.
The staff of the school newspaper doesn’t resemble the crowd that I worked with at my school newspaper. Sure, times have changed, but these teens act like they are working for Vogue. Beside the main two characters, the other students (played by Coral Pena, Kara Young and C.J. Hoff) don’t have much to do nor do they add much to the story. In fact, two characters, a lesbian couple of color don’t really serve much purpose other than to show some diversity to the film. Even Henry’s family members are pretty disposable to the story.
Because this is a movie about teens, there is the requiste party scene followed by a brief sex scene. At the Halloween costume party, instead of hooting and hollering, the kids act like they are at a cocktail party. Later, Grace explains to Henry that she hasn’t had sex in awhile, that’s she’s pretty rusty and that he shouldn’t expect much.
While not a terrible film, Chemical Hearts isn’t very good either. The story is dull, the characters are bland and the whole thing feels disingenuous. Everyone in this story (except for Henry’s parents) seem to be miserable and I guess that is the point of a teen angst story. Even Reinhart (who plays Betty on the CW TV series Riverdale) can’t save this thing.
Main image: Amazon Studios
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.