Love can be painful, and no truer words could be said when it comes to that first big romance in your life. It makes for some of the most important lessons learned in life, as well as pretty major inspiration for literary and cinematic stories – many of which explore this hurt with nuance and understanding. This particular genre has become somewhat rote, with plenty of examples coming through the theatrical door every year, but there are some films that stumble hardcore, even when understanding this type of movie rather well. Sadly, Richard Tanne’s Chemical Hearts is the latest example of such an ill-fated endeavor.
Taking its story from Krystal Sutherland’s YA romance of the same name, Our Chemical Hearts follows Henry (Austin Abrams), a serious teenager who’s never been in a romantic couple before. All of that changes once he meets the mysterious Grace (Lili Reinhart), who is not only his co-editor in chief on the school paper, but becomes his first girlfriend. Their relationship, while slow to start, eventually takes off into the highs and lows you’d expect from a high school romance, but also with Grace’s secret past threatening to unravel everything at a moment’s notice.
Chemical Hearts knows the formula to a semi-tragic teen drama, but only hits the highlights.
In a weird fashion, writer/director Richard Tanne’s adaptation of Chemical Hearts knows the building blocks of a YA romance, and deploys them frequently. Quirks are handed out in abundance, the tragic secret from Grace’s past is eventually confronted when it threatens her relationship with Henry, and there’s even the usual band of best friends our protagonist has to fall back on when times are tough. The blueprint of something like The Fault In Our Stars is very much in play here.
And yet somehow those building blocks are never fully developed to build the foundation that Chemical Hearts needs to really work. We don’t get enough of a baseline for Henry’s life with his friends, nor is there much time in the film’s short runtime to develop his aspirations, or even his family life. By the time Henry engages with his sister Sadie (Sarah Jones) in the cliche moment where the older sibling imparts romantic wisdom sagely it feels like the scene just exists to cross off an item off the recipe list. That’s basically what everything in the movie feels like, as the it just runs through the motions, but forgets why or how those motions work.
The relationship at the center of Chemical Hearts lacks the romance needed to carry this sort of story.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the central relationship between Austin Abrams’ Henry and Lili Reinhart’s Grace lacks the fire you’d expect from the first great love of a teenager’s life. Chemical Hearts is an odd duck in the sense that the film plays out around what’s supposed to be a grand romance, but it doesn’t feel romantic at all. Considering most teen dramas cut from this sort of cloth find themselves drenched in love, but light on drama, it makes this movie’s existence all the more interesting.
Somehow, the one aspect of Chemical Hearts’ emotional rollercoaster that manages to work is Grace’s pain, and the suffering it causes Henry. There are plenty of scenes where one or both of the lovers are sobbing or making confessions hoping they can make it work, or they revealing one only pursued the other because they were dared to. Without the sweeter aspects of the crush that’s supposed to be the lynchpin of a YA romance like Chemical Hearts, those painful moments feel like they’re playing to a partner that failed to show up to the set.
Despite its best efforts, this teen literary adaptation has no chemistry.
In an age when movies around the hour and a half mark are being praised for keeping things moving, the 93-minute Chemical Hearts just doesn't get off the ground long enough for audiences to enjoy it. Weighed down by tragedy, the greatest heartbreak is that there’s no heart to break by time it ends. While there’s some credit to be taken by showing a more realistic “warts and all” high school courtship, it’s required to have some moments where you believe there’s some love to have been had in the first place.
At most, people who watch Chemical Hearts will be able to remark about one particular aspect that hits rather oddly in the current state of the world. The film could be considered sci-fi, as it shows us an alternate timeline where the class of 2020 actually got to finish the school year in person. But even if that joke were a real part of the movie’s plot it would only serve to disappoint, as a YA sci-fi adventure called Chemical Hearts sounds like it’d be a much more entertaining, and dare I say more romantic, experience.
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