Lili Reinhart beams with bittersweet light in a surprisingly-nuanced teen romance that honors the complicated struggles of adolescence.
At first blush, it would be too easy to write Richard Tanne’s Chemical Hearts off as another melodrama centered around a soft-spoken teen who comes out of his shell after meeting the quirky new girl. Thankfully Chemical Hearts thankfully has more depth and nuance than that, a spiritual successor to James Ponsoldt’s superb YA romance The Spectacular Now.
Austin Abrams stars as Henry, the aforementioned soft-spoken teen. If there is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to be found in Chemical Hearts, it would be Henry. He even has the thematically-appropriate hobby of perfecting his kintsugi—an art practice of mending broken clay pottery with gold. Henry longs to be a writer but has grown up too comfortable in a middle-class home to net him any hard knocks or real-life experiences. Enter Grace (Lili Reinhart), the new girl at school struggling to adjust to life after being disabled in a tragic accident.
Grace, withdrawn and sullen, is perpetually draped in enormous flannels and carpenter jeans, reads Neruda and frequently wanders off to places unknown. As she and Henry inevitably grow closer, it becomes clear Grace is caught in a moment of wanting to be unburdened by tragedy, to be normal, while knowing that normal might always be out of reach for her. The things that Henry takes for granted—stable home, physical health—elude Grace, falling just over the horizon of her own trauma.
Reinhart (who also served as Executive Producer) fills the role beautifully, putting a great depth of feeling in Grace’s silent expressions and grief-stricken outbursts. It is too bad then that we only see Grace as Henry sees her, kept in the soft focus of young love and not allowed much dimension outside of her own misfortune.
Henry’s infatuation is quickly soured when he goes along with a suggestion that he follow Grace as she slips off on one of her rambles. Henry quietly insinuates himself on her most private moments, like watching from the shadows at the track while Grace tests and punishes and mourns for the body that no longer feels like her own. Henry’s intrusion is a base violation, and one that he never has to answer for.
Grace, whose life has not been as comfortable or straightforward as Henry’s (even before the accident) does the best she can to move on, but it’s hard not to see Henry as an opportunist who takes advantage of a vulnerable person who might otherwise have chosen differently for herself. To get so little of Grace outside of Henry (and her accident) is a real missed opportunity, and it’s hard not to pine for the gorgeous coming-of-age story that could have been if the strokes hadn’t been so broad. Even the portrayals of Henry’s family and friends seem flimsy under the weight of The Great Love Story that never quite delivers.
The things that Henry takes for granted—stable home, physical health—elude Grace, falling just over the horizon of her own trauma.
That being said, Chemical Hearts gets a lot of stuff right. There isn’t a lot of handwringing over will they or won’t they, the connection is felt and acknowledged almost right away. Abrams does his best with the material, despite Henry being frustratingly bland at times. It’s Reinhart who truly shines here, getting a chance to really stretch her dramatic muscles beyond Riverdale.
It helps that the story doesn’t overstay its welcome, Chemical Hearts moves at a good pace and looks absolutely beautiful, like walking through a series of Instagram filters. And, unlike so many of its predecessors, it does justice to the theme of Teenaged Limbo without reinventing the wheel, showcasing those years for what they really are: a no-man’s-land between childhood and adulthood, painful, tempestuous, even wildly beautiful.
Chemical Hearts is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.