After graduating from high school, most people realize it wasn’t as important as it seemed. However, unfolding in a small New Jersey town, Chemical Hearts follows the story of Henry Page (Austin Abrams) who thinks quite the opposite. To him, high school is the time of transformation. It’s when people first fall in love and are peer-pressured into doing things they don’t like – a lot of firsts he has yet to experience. A textbook teenager, Henry longs for romance – the sort of tooth-aching love that he reads about in novels. He’s incredibly clichéd, and a hopeless romantic who wants more out of his adolescence before graduating.
Luckily for him, everything changes when Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), the new transfer student, joins the newspaper club. Working alongside Grace and uncovering her dark secrets, Henry quickly falls in love despite her imperfections.
Just like its flawed characters, Chemical Hearts is painfully flawed. At times, it is difficult to sit through the teenage angst which leaks from the film’s seams. From its forced dialogue to Lili Reinhart’s terrible limping, the film’s exhaustive list of faults burdens its hopeful message.
The main issue begins in the first act and trickles down into the final moments of the film. I always applaud diversity; however, Chemical Hearts adds these characters as an afterthought. The side characters seem to exist only to remind you that the cast isn’t just white people. Truthfully, the supporting characters in the film don’t always fit into the grand scheme of things. Chemical Hearts, while clichéd, is incredibly dense and has secrets that are unveiled as the story progresses. It needs the your fullest attention, and yet, sidetracks to remind you of Henry’s two non-white friends. Their arcs, notably Kara Young’s La and Coral Peña’s Cora, disrespect both the actors and the potential of the characters.
La and Cora’s coming-of-age can easily be a film separate from Chemical Hearts. Henry and Grace’s angst obscure the importance of the two girl’s experiences with sexuality and romance. In fact, it becomes upsetting to see La and Cora on screen because it’s clear their story will not get the justice it deserves with this film. Even until the very last scenes, when La and Cora appear, the girls are mishandled poorly for the sake of “inclusivity points.” The dialogue in their scenes are also cringe-worthy, like the rest of the script.
In general, it feels like the writers never experienced high school. From Henry’s over-dramatized statements to Grace’s all-too-deep lines, it destroys the realism of the film. Parts of the script feels like it came out of a twelve-year-old’s diary – both due to its incredibly cynical tone and delivery. For the most part, it gets uncomfortable to watch. Luckily, this issue seems to resolve itself as the movie goes on, but it makes you wonder if they switched writers in between acts.
There’s also Lili Reinhart’s failed attempt at limping. In the film, Grace heavily relies on a cane. As tensions flare throughout the film, she runs away; however, unlike limping individuals, Grace launches into a full sprint with no limp. Later on, she magically loses the ability to move as she did during her sprints. It causes a bit of second-hand embarrassment, and in truth, I might have had to close my eyes.
Despite its many flaws, Chemical Hearts does manage to impress in a few ways. As the film progresses, it manages to improve through its core message. Emphasizing growth and moving on, the characters flesh out and become individuals that can inspire change in a teenager. Both Henry and Grace explore the hardships of growing up with trauma and pain. While their pain is not comparable – pain and trauma aren’t a competition – it shows how once an individual finds what works best for them, things can get better. In a way, this element makes way for the perfect teen film.
Alongside the buzz of high school drama, classwork, and college admissions, many teenagers are accompanied with feelings of loneliness and abandonment. They are Chemical Hearts’ target audience, and the film reminds them that it does get better. Through watching Henry and Grace’s stories, the film reassures and leaves a sense of hope in its wake.
As the film draws towards a close, there is a sense of completion and sort-of satisfaction. While this may be from the fact that I had to sit through Lili Reinhart’s limping or the “incredibly deep” dialogue, it could very well be the note on which it leaves on. Contrasting the angst-filled Henry at the beginning, we are left with characters who have risen from their grief and learned how to cope with trauma.
Chemical Hearts premieres on Prime Video August 21!