Teenage romances are a tricky thing to pull off. On one hand, the allure of young love is something that is universal, and thus eternal. On the other, the lasting power of teenage relationships is notoriously low, so putting stock into them, even in the fantasy world of movies, is a fool’s errand.
Chemical Hearts, based on the 2016 novel Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, is a tragic love story where most of the tragedy happens before the two main characters meet. Henry (Austin Abrams) is a high school senior whose longtime goal was to become the editor of his school newspaper. His plans are altered when Grace (Lili Reinhart), a transfer student, joins the staff and is named co-editor by the faculty advisor.
Grace, who uses a cane following a car accident, is initially sullen and withdrawn, but gradually opens up thanks to Henry’s kindness and persistence. As the two grow closer, the reasons for Grace’s gloominess become clearer, putting a crimp in their burgeoning relationship. Henry must try to navigate Grace’s ever-changing moods, while Grace tries to keep herself from falling to far into the darkness.
The film is the sophomore effort by writer/director Richard Tanne, who also wrote and directed Southside by You, which detailed Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date. This one takes a little while longer to get going, but once Tanne establishes Henry and Grace’s bond, it grabs hold of the viewer and doesn’t let go. Even through the barrier of Grace’s physical and mental pain, the chemistry of the two characters is evident.
Still, the trauma resulting from Grace’s car crash puts a cloud over the entire story, which is as much about her depression/PTSD as it is about the growing feelings between her and Henry. The complicated nature of her feelings about Henry become all the more complex when you bring in the other parts of her life, which contain events that are unenviable, to say the least.
The film is not quite as successful when it comes with dealing with Henry’s quirky group of friends, who work alongside Henry and Grace at the newspaper. One, Muz (C.J. Hoff), is a cypher who only seems to exist to show that Henry has a male friend of some type. The other, La (Kara Young), is gay, and is given her own will they/won’t they romance with Cora (Coral Peña). However, the film doesn’t quite have enough energy to spend on their relationship, so it comes off as inclusion merely for the sake of inclusion.
Abrams has built up a nice resumé in the last few years, starring in the underrated Brad’s Status and impressing in guest roles on both Euphoria and This is Us. He’s not a dynamic performer, but he’s steady and reliable, which makes him interesting. Reinhart, best known as Betty on Riverdale, turns in a nuanced performance here that makes her someone to watch in the near future.
Romance tinged with tragedy is a staple of young adult movies in recent years, and Chemical Hearts fits right in with the best of them. It never tries to be much more than what it needs to be, delivering a story that touches the heart in multiple ways.
Chemical Hearts debuts exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on August 21.