Producers: Alex Saks and Richard Tanne Director: Richard Tanne Screenplay: Richard Tanne Cast: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Kara Young, Coral Peña, C.J. Hoff, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Meg Gibson, Shannon Walsh and Bruce Altman Distributor: Amazon Studios
Adapted from the debut 2016 YA novel by Australian Krystal Sutherland, Richard Tanne’s teen tale comes directly out of John Green territory, and despite two sensitive lead performances and an overall solid production, it doesn’t add much to a genre that already seems rather passé.
The central character is Henry Page (Austin Abrams), a high school senior who’s an aspiring writer and, truth be told, a bit of a nebbish who looks forward to the deep experiences he claims he’s never had. He aims to add luster to his college-admission résumé by becoming editor of the campus newspaper, but finds he has competition for the job in transfer student Grace Town (Lili Reinhart). She’s the unorthodox girl who changes Henry’s placid existence—abrasive and standoffish, she dresses scruffily, but is talented and attractive, and Henry immediately falls for her as they’re chosen to run the paper as a team—though she declines the offer, preferring just to write. She also avoids driving, for reasons that will eventually be disclosed.
Smitten Henry does all he can to break through Grace’s crusty exterior, and succeeds to some extent. But Grace is an emotionally damaged young woman (she’s also physically impaired, using a cane to get around), and in the end she proves unable to overcome the trauma she continues to suffer as a result of a tragic incident in her past. When the specifics of that episode are revealed, they frankly don’t come as much of a surprise, but at least they’re not outlandish.
There are ancillary elements to the rather skimpy plot, of course. Both Henry and Grace have home situations that can be difficult—his parents are played by Meg Gibson and Bruce Altman and his sister by Sarah Jones, and her mother by J.J. Pyle—and there are the usual variety of subplots involving kooky classmates to contend with (some are played by Kara Young, Coral Peña, C.J. Hoff and Shannon Walsh). There’s also a visual quirk associated with the film’s title—animated swashes of colored globs swirling about that periodically occur as Henry opines about the radical chemical changes that occur in the adolescent brain, which responds to emotional stimuli with a force that adults should appreciate.
The ending, of course, is a bittersweet one, with Henry learning that even painful experiences can teach valuable lessons. That’s about par for the course in this sort of story, where a youth who rebels against accepted norms is treated as a sort of martyr to truth and beauty, but if predictable it will probably satisfy fans of such stories.
Abrams and Reinhart make an agreeable pair, though to tell the truth his narration (the book too was told from his perspective) can be pompous and grating at times. The rest of the cast frankly haven’t much to do, though they’re effective enough, as is the technical work of production designer Lucio Seixas, cinematographer Albert Salas and editor JC Bond. Stephen James Taylor’s score is unremarkable.
“Chemical Hearts” fulfills the standard requirements of this kind of juvenile tearjerker, but it lacks any particular fizz that would raise it beyond the run-of-the-mill.