“You are never more alive than when you’re a teenager; your brain is flush with chemicals that can turn your life into a story of epic proportions.”
The above quote is spoken by Henry Page (Austin Abrams) in the opening narration of the new Amazon Original, Chemical Hearts. The poetic language is an artful nod to the overarching dark and gritty tone of this coming-of-age, teen romance. Serving as an adaptation of the novel Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, the flick comes from American writer and director Richard Tanne along with executive producer Lili Reinhart (known for the movie Hustlers and her role as Betty Cooper in the CW hit series, Riverdale).
Starring as Grace, Reinhart plays a troubled and scarred teenage girl who lives in a tumultuous, tragic world. After a devastating car accident, Grace transfers to a new school, quickly becoming a source of fascination for Henry Page (Austin Abrams). He’s drawn to her moody and inexplicable behavior. Where does she go? Why does she walk with a cane? Grace weaves in and out of Henry’s life and consciousness. He’s mystified by her natural beauty, yet clear disregard for her appearance – her apparel consists of over-sized, baggy clothes.
Grace, too, is drawn to Henry after the pair become co-editors of the school newspaper. Her fixation, however, is a manifestation of her brush with death and the subsequent realization of how fleeting life can be. Grace has this peculiar energy and faraway quality to her that feels as if she’s somewhere else, despite being physically present. And herein lies the issue with Chemical Hearts.
To Henry, Grace is an enigma. Another female protagonist for a male to swoop in and “rescue.” Grace is no Cinderella. Yes, she’s faced heartbreak, misfortune, and pain, but that doesn’t mean she needs Prince Charming to be her heroic savior –– and that’s where Henry crosses the line. It’s as if the script reads, “Insert creepy behavior here.”
Seriously. He legit follows her. Snooping around, peeking in on intimate, private moments not meant for his eyes. He follows her to the track, as she works to rehabilitate and strengthen her damaged leg, and to her ex-boyfriend’s grave, where guilt and inner demons consume her. As a viewer, we get to know a little bit more about Grace through these moments of intrusion. Unfortunately, the story fails to hold Henry accountable for his actions, which clearly violate Grace’s privacy.
Grace is kept at a distance throughout the film. Besides witnessing some of her psychological struggles, the audience never has the opportunity to delve into the depths of her character. This is where the movie fell a bit short for me. Lili Reinhart’s acting is beautiful and evocative (truly, as a Riverdale fan, I was impressed). However, the script was constructed in a manner that ensures Grace never becomes the focal point of the film, and for me, that really minimized the impact of her character. I wish her fragility was further explored.
Besides Henry and Grace, the film’s other characters – Henry’s parents, sister, and close friends – all feel like afterthoughts or small footnotes speckled throughout a larger plotline. It’s a real shame they weren’t given more development and screentime – the acting was well-done. The subplot and romance that blossomed between Cora (Coral Peña) and Lola (Kara Young) gave the film a little color and personality but ultimately lacked impact. It deserved to be further explored and celebrated.
Despite its flaws, Chemical Hearts still provides a few well-written, emotionally satisfying moments. There’s poetry laced throughout the film that weaves the story together, shining a light on how talented Abrams and Reinhart are. All and all, I’d say the bartender put a lot of love into this cocktail, but the disproportionate ingredients created a drink that was tasty instead of brilliant.
Chemical Hearts will be available on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, Aug. 21.