The teenage period of adolescence is often characteristic of learning and self-discovery, making it one of the most important stages in the transition to adulthood. In film, the coming-of-age genre has emerged as a reflection of this stage of life, often emphasizing and exploring the trials and tribulations of adolescence in order to target this verging teenage audience. Writer-director Richard Tanne searches for this demographic in his new adaptation “Chemical Hearts,” delving into the coming-of-age drama with mixed results.
The film centers around Henry (Austin Abrams) and his journey through his senior year of high school as editor in chief of the school newspaper. His plans quickly become sidetracked, however, when Grace (Lili Reinhart) transfers and joins the student newsroom as assistant editor. From the very beginning, Henry is noticeably interested in Grace, with the film sacrificing the initial subtlety reminiscent of the higher-tier teen drama — a “Lady Bird” or “The Edge of Seventeen,” for example. Nevertheless, the first half of the film paces through the awkward stage of the pair’s relationship, pushing past platonic friendship and eventually transitioning into a much more romantic connection.
Henry’s likability as a character and the chemistry between the two leads gifts the film priceless heart and relatability. As Henry awkwardly tries to find his footing in a relationship with Grace, Abrams’ performance as a confused and melodramatic teen shines with subtlety, embodying the character to a pleasant degree. While Henry is the most entertaining character in the film marginally, Grace often gleams in her moments of solitude — whereupon some of the most intense and meaningful scenes of the film are captured. Reinhart’s emotional execution as Grace, while consistent throughout the film, truly reaches its apex in these individual moments.
Though the actors’ performances continually uplift the film, the script’s character development and plot progression are at times inconsistent. The central relationship between Henry and Grace reveals a more focused issue regarding unearned plot developments in Tanne’s script. Their connection to each other feels unbelievable at times, mostly in the earlier portion of the film, which is ultimately rooted in the poor setup of their initial affection. The audience never definitively knows the driving force behind Henry’s affection for Grace, largely because his character is hardly questioned or explored in relation to her — at least, not to a meaningful and thorough degree. For a film absolutely centered around the relationship of Henry and Grace, it too often misinterprets quick montages as sufficient context and character development.
Nevertheless, the story of Henry and Grace has its moments of triumph, particularly in the script’s divergence from the typical teen drama dynamic. They often defy the tropes of the teen romance through unexpected behaviors and interactions — and thus reject the heteronormative stigmas they entail. Most notably, Grace’s eventual rejection of Henry and their finalized separation is neither villainized by Henry nor encouraged to be villainized by the audience. Instead, the film recognizes and respects Grace’s choices in this way — contrary to the stereotypical teen romance, which often rebukes the female love interest for rejecting their male protagonist.
Quite similarly, the visual spectacle of Tanne’s film unquestionably uplifts its technical presence, falling in line with the aforementioned vigorous performances from its two leading actors. Certain scenes are downright beautiful: The nature shots, in particular which, paired with an overall cinematographic tone that remains engaging and congruent throughout, makes for a stunning viewing experience. The camerawork is likewise evident of substantial talent and potential, accentuating certain emotional and explosive plot points. This visual aptitude is likely the payoff of Tanne’s focus on the spectacle of “Chemical Hearts,” though it comes at the cost of a lackluster narrative structure.
Despite its structural shortcomings, “Chemical Hearts” as an entertainment medium achieves its central purpose. Though it rides along cliches and sometimes relies too heavily on them, it has just enough unique and beautiful moments to balance its scales. It’s the kind of romantic coming-of-age drama that feels comforting on a lonely weekend during self-quarantine, averaging out with the plethora of films in its wide category. As for Tanne, his aptitude as a directorial force continues to show promise, even if his skills as a screenwriter may still need some time to mature — and eventually come of age.