Before the Amazon Original Chemical Hearts, a cliché-ridden, mostly flat teen drama about first loves and growing up, filmmaker Richard Tanne made the lovely and underrated Southside With You, a film adaptation of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date across Chicago. Truly, it’s a really sweet film, with uncannily spot-on performances by Tikka Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as the future First Couple.
Unfortunately, Tanne’s latest film, an adaptation of the book by Krystal Southerland, fails to capture the same romantic magic in a bottle, instead piling coming-of-age trope on top of trope and never actually creating anything resembling compelling characters. The story of Henry (Austin Abrams), a high school senior who begins the film by bemoaning that nothing of note has ever happened to him, Chemical Hearts is ostensibly about the life-changing experience he has falling in love with Grace (Lili Reinhart), the new girl in school with a dark backstory (eye roll). Over the course of the film, the two become closer as we learn more about Grace’s grief following a fatal car accident she was involved in, but it’s never enough to understand why they like each other, what’s pulling them together or what either of them is getting out of the experience. The fact that a sub-plot with one of their fellow school newspaper staffers is a more intriguing storyline than what Henry and Grace are going through should say enough about how forgettable their connection is.
“You are never more alive than when you’re a teenager,” Henry says in voice-over as the film opens. That’s a high bar for a story to set so early, essentially promising us an adventure involving any number of potentially life-altering experiences only a teenager could be brave (or stupid) enough to chase after. Chemical Hearts never gets anywhere near that sense of vibrancy, as Henry mopes around waiting for something exciting to happen and Grace harbors her own unresolved trauma around the accident that killed her then-boyfriend and left her struggling to walk without the support of a cane. Told from Henry’s perspective, Grace is a broken soul with her guard up, just waiting to be understood by a guy who “gets her.” There are infinitely more interesting things in Grace’s story that the film never makes and effort to explore; instead, we get Henry’s well-meaning but clueless parents, and an older sister who apparently had some kind of an affair with a colleague so now she has all the relationship advice little brother might need.
It’s entirely possible that Chemical Hearts didn’t resonate with me because, at a couple decades’ distance from high school, I’m not exactly the film’s (or the book’s) target audience. Which, OK. But there are plenty of examples of wonderful coming-of-age stories that work for their intended age bracket and everyone else (see: Eighth Grade; Booksmart; Lady Bird; you get the idea). The fact that this film can’t manage that makes it hard to recommend. Abrams and Reinhart do their best with the one-dimensional characters they’re given to work with, but unfortunately Tanne’s adaptation of Southerland’s novel either lost something massive in translation or wasn’t all that deep to begin with. We know from his previous work that Tanne is capable of capturing the charm and romance of a fledgling relationship; for whatever reason, that just doesn’t happen here.
Chemical Hearts is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!