Dir: Richard Tanne. Starring: Austin Abrams, Lili Reinhart, Kara Young, Coral Peña, CJ Hoff, Sarah Jones. 15 cert, 93 mins
“You are never more alive than when you’re a teenager,” Henry Page (Austin Abrams), the youthful hero of Richard Tanne’s Chemical Hearts, tells us. He’s right, in part – those years are filled with emotions that we’re convinced will swallow us up whole. But in this adaptation of Krystal Sutherland’s debut novel about a doomed romance, adolescence is put forth as the personal and poetic peak of all human existence. It’s when we become our most profound, liberated selves. Childhood is the appetiser, adulthood nothing more than a cheese course. It’s a strange, myopic kind of nostalgia.
Henry’s flair for the dramatic finds a perfect echo in Grace (Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart), who intones, “being young is so painful, it’s almost too much to feel”, as she thumbs through copies of Catcher in the Rye. Grace isn’t quite the “manic pixie dream girl” we’ve come to despise – there’s not much whimsy to her. If anything, she’s more the “depressed ghoul” type, her face pale and cheerless, as she floats listlessly in and out of rooms, clouds of hopelessness trailing behind her.
But she’s certainly a “dream girl” to our self-involved protagonist. He’s a writer – or an aspiring one, at least – who’s hamstrung by the fact “nothing worth writing about has ever happened” to him. When he and Grace are asked to co-edit the school newspaper together, we watch as this interesting, elusive girl parachutes into his life and gives it artistic depth. She introduces him to Neruda (which he initially pronounces as “Narada”). He pores over each stanza, looking for any declaration of love he can highlight and then repeat endlessly to himself. “I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride,” he says out loud, as if the words suddenly belong to him and him alone.
Henry fixates on putting together the pieces of her existence. Why does she need a walking aid? Why did she stop writing? Why does she own a car, but refuses to drive it? The answer seems obvious, but Henry insists on stalking her around town, even as she wanders into the woods to find some peace within the chaos. Chemical Hearts ends up fetishising Grace’s tragedies, inscribing them on hazy cityscapes and autumn leaves blown about by the wind. When there’s a scene of emotional intensity, the camera will hover excitedly around her anguished face.
Henry is fascinated with the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken ceramics are carefully glued back together, their cracks filled with powdered gold. What’s revealing is that he buys vases specifically to smash them – he’s intoxicated by brokenness, believing it will enrich him. “I’m messed up!” Grace cries. “Stop trying to fix me!” He doesn’t listen.
Reinhart, to her credit, doesn’t approach Chemical Hearts as standard teen fare. She lets the character’s pain rest in her bones, so that Grace’s very soul seems to wilt. It speaks to a sadness that the script never quite seems to capture – an entire world of thoughts and emotions that seem to exist just offscreen. The film chooses instead to coddle Henry. He never has to apologise for forcing a love story on someone still in the throes of grief. Instead, Grace flutters her eyelids and tells him: “You are an extraordinary collection of atoms, Henry Page.” She isn’t a real woman, she’s an idea.
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