Director – Richard Tanne
Cast – Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams
Chemical Hearts is a movie about impermanence, about the complexity of human emotion and the equally messy desire to make sense of it. As far as high-school melodramas go, it’s among the finest in many years — a film that doesn’t look at the teen experience with derision, and dares to invoke Spike Lee.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Hollywood watched Twilight mint millions and decided that its success signalled a new dawn for young adult movies. And so it threw everything at the wall, hoping that something — it didn’t really matter what — sticks. You’d be surprised how many potential YA franchises were abandoned after first instalments, mostly because the audience — a mildly obsessive teen audience, remember — thought that cheating on its first love was not something that it wanted to do.
Watch the Chemical Hearts trailer here
And so, while some franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games survived, the most memorable films of this Golden Age of YA — a movement in American filmmaking that I am happy to have witnessed at precisely the right time — are standalone dramas based on books. Like The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, The Spectacular Now, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Perks of Being a Wallflower — all personal favourites — Chemical Hearts, the new teen film out on Amazon Prime Video, also offers a wise take on the volatility of youth. And like each of those films, it has tremendous affection for its characters.
How often do we see filmmakers, who are probably in their 40s, try to appease younger audiences in the most superficial manner possible? There has been no bigger culprit of this crime in recent months than Imtiaz Ali, who with Love Aaj Kal reduced an entire generation’s emotional truth to hashtags and an overreliance on mobile apps. At no point in Chemical Hearts does director Richard Tanne, who made the terrific Barack Obama film Southside with You, pretend to be a teenager himself. He views his characters not with judgement — like most kids, they tend to do stupid things — but with empathy and earnestness.
So much of what happens in the film to both Henry Page and Grace Town — named as only characters in movies can be — is essentially happening to them for the first time. You watch as they struggle to comprehend their feelings, the hollowness of heartbreak and the euphoria of first love. You watch as they learn to appreciate the roles they play in each other’s lives — when to offer support, but more importantly, when to leave the other person alone.
And both Henry (Austin Abrams, doing his best Timothee Chalamet impression) and Grace (an absolutely knockout Lili Reinhart) are unsure of what they feel for each other. He is cripplingly inexperienced in matters of the heart; so it is not surprising that he falls head over heels in love with Grace, who, it is revealed in an elegantly directed scene, is a survivor of trauma. Much of the film is devoted to her personal growth.
As she surrenders herself to him, she is consumed by an overwhelming sense of guilt, an emotion that she recognises all too well, but not quite like this. She did not know that guilt — a very primal feeling — could take such drastically different, yet equally intense forms. By comparison, Henry’s puppy love feels positively puerile. Mere moments after meeting her for the first time, he adopts Grace’s favourite poems and songs as his own. And shortly after that, he begins stalking her — both on the internet and IRL.
But these scenes are designed to highlight the vast chasm of emotional maturity that Henry must leapfrog across to understand Grace’s deliciously dark, and considerably more evolved mind. It is a mind consumed by the idea of death — not in a morbid way, but more out of curiosity. She has come close to it, and it has changed her perspective on life. Henry’s understanding of the world, having been born in a happy household, is based on what he has read, and not on what he has experienced.
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I was also delighted to observe that the film has no time for technology. It’s very old fashioned that way. When Grace doesn’t respond to Henry’s texts all day, he doesn’t immediately launch an online investigation into her whereabouts — like any real romantic hero, he sprints to her house.
Chemical Hearts is a wonderful throwback to a very specific era in filmmaking — the late 2000s — an era in which romantic movies were defined by navel-gazing soundtracks and dreamy visuals; overly dramatic kids at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum and quirky best friends. It’s the cheapest form of time travel currently available.