“Chemical Hearts” – “You’re never more alive than when you’re a teenager.” – Henry Page (Austin Abrams)
Raise your hand if you’ve heard a version of Henry’s aforementioned statement during your teenage years. Parents, teachers, or older brothers or sisters are usually the main prophets to bestow this wisdom, but in this case, Henry is narrating his story, as he looks back on his high school senior year. Before meeting Grace (Lili Reinhart), Henry never really believed it, though.
He never felt it.
Nothing emotionally noteworthy rocked Henry’s universe, but Grace did. On the surface, she’s a prototypical prom queen, an all-state track star, or a combination of both. Blonde, beautiful, and considerably intimidating to the hundreds of mere mortals – donning the shapes of adolescent boys, ages 15 to 18 – drifting throughout the locker-laced hallways.
Henry doesn’t know a lot about Grace. She is the new girl from nearby East River, N.J., but this observant introvert quickly surmises that Grace is hurting, both emotionally and physically. Since they are editors of the school’s newspaper, they’ll need to work in concert. Therefore, sparks could fly between these two single teens during the most vibrant period of their lives.
Based on Krystal Sutherland’s novel, “Chemical Hearts” director/writer Richard Tanne (“Southside with You” (2016)) sends his audience back to this volatile stretch of youth and offers a turbulent teen romance, built on a makeshift foundation of gloom and grief, but perhaps some lasting, bright passion may bloom from the gray groundwork.
When they meet, both teenagers reside in glum spaces, and a mystery surrounds Grace. This young woman prefers silence. Finding an invisibility cloak at a local garage sale would solve all her problems, but Grace will curtly respond to small talk or schoolwork-discourse while continuously internalizing her aggravation. She has a noticeable limp and resents using a crutch to march across campus and everywhere else. The aluminum aid reminds her of a past autonomy and better days, which are unknown to Henry and us.
Meanwhile, he isn’t exactly bitter or dejected, but his writing, classes, small group of friends, and stable family have occupied his time and space, leaving no room for dating. Surely, Henry could’ve fit girlfriends into his daily planners, but filling his mind with apprehension is an easier path than establishing confidence.
Fate, however, brings Henry an opportunity to connect with someone, and leaning on his habitual trepidation is no longer an option. In the high school pecking order, reclusive, inexperienced teenage boys don’t customarily begin dating deep-thinking, all-American girls, although many have tried. Movies like “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “Secret Admirer” (1985), and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987) peppered the big screens during the 1980s, as the clumsy male leads attempt – (sorry, *spoiler alert*) in vain – to date future NFL cheerleaders.
Thirty-one years later, “Say Anything…” (1989), however, rightfully earned its staying power for many reasons. One key explanation is because an unfocused slacker Lloyd (John Cusack) and valedictorian Diane (Ione Skye) meet on equal terms, as meaningful relationships are missing from both of their resumes, albeit for different reasons.
In “Chemical Hearts”, Henry is the lone person in need of emotional growth, while Grace tries to heal her broken past. While the possibility for love is right here, a good therapist would recommend, “Hey, just stay friends.”
Still, at any age, relationships can get complicated in a hurry, and Tanne’s film takes a unique approach by explaining – like a science class – the chemical reasons behind joy and pain. Henry’s older sister Suds (Sarah Jones) expounds on dopamine, stress hormones, and withdrawal, which is tremendously helpful to him and the audience, at least this critic. Where was Suds when I was growing up?
(By the way, if you’re playing at home, C8H11NO2 is dopamine’s molecular formula.)
She thankfully captures needed screen time, but since the movie clocks in at 89 minutes, there’s not much room for anyone else. Henry’s three friends don’t add to the narrative other than prove to Grace that our hero is not a complete loner, which melts away an unwanted Unabomber-vibe. No, this is Grace and Henry’s movie. Abrams is pitch-perfect as young man lost in foreign, misunderstood euphoria, and Reinhart fills her character with complexity, wonder, and despair, as she slowly unveils the roots of her sorrow.
The reveal does feel shoehorned within the confines of a feature film. It most likely plays out more rhythmically in the novel, and the four school newspaper issues that are supposed to coincide with Grace and Henry’s journey seem like an afterthought. Still, the movie’s overall message – on the joyous and blustery feelings of first love – does resonate. Maybe that’s enough, but will “Chemical Hearts” echo with the same impact in 2051?
“Say Anything…” probably will.
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Amazon Prime Video