Amazon studios has taken a stab at reinventing the young adult drama with the movie Chemical Hearts, but as is the case with most films about young people created by those who no longer remember what it is like to be young, it misses the mark quite a bit. Instead of understanding and exploring the complexity of teenagers today, the story feels overly preachy and lacks any real depth. It tries to do too much with too little.
The film’s protagonist is Henry Page (Euphoria’s Austin Abrams), an awkward high school senior who is more comfortable writing at people than he is talking to them. His self-proclaimed unremarkable life is thrown for a loop when he meets Grace Town (Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart), a transfer student recruited to help him edit the school newspaper. What follows is a brief, complicated, and intense friendship that tries to become something more but ultimately fails.
If you’re interested in watching this movie, I have to warn you the rest of the review is going to contain massive spoilers, so this is your warning.
Henry can’t help but feel drawn towards Grace – because she’s a shiny new toy, because she’s mysterious, but mainly because her withdrawal from the world around her is like looking into a mirror. Grace has been struggling with life since a car accident that ruined her knee and killed her boyfriend. Henry tries to support Grace help her move on, but their relationship meets its end when she can’t move forward at the pace he needs her to, though they are both supposedly forever changed by each other.
To be fair, Chemical Hearts does pose an interesting take on the angst required in the teen coming of age genre. The movie’s concept is that when you’re a teenager you’re in “limbo” – the awkward, intense, terrifying transition from being a child to an adult. Grace explains to Henry that adults are “just teenagers who were lucky enough to make it out of limbo alive,” and argues that we should be talking about it baldly, not ignoring it.
The problem is that it’s hard to buy what this movie is selling, because it tries to sell too much in too little time. To cap matters off, it never follows through on what it promised to deliver. The movie spends entirely too long focusing on Grace’s depression and how she came to be in so much pain, but never do we actually get to see her move past them. After Henry and Grace part ways, she takes time for herself and he avoids her until the movie’s final minutes. We are able to see that her condition is improving and she is doing better, but we never got to see how she got there.
As a viewer, I feel robbed of what was supposed to be the center of the movie. As someone who has known individuals who live with mental illnesses, I’m disappointed that Grace’s grief and suffering are exploited for the sake of another character’s story. And for the sake of all those who have similar experiences or relate to Grace, I’m upset that they are only allowed to see her pain and don’t get to see how she lives through it. It would’ve been cathartic to see Grace’s full road to recovery, and would’ve provided an excellent chance to actually educate the target audience on how to cope with such hardships.
Much more time is devoted to our protagonist Henry, who has his own journey to follow – but he never actually goes on one. He talks to Grace, tries to woo/console her, they date for a little while, their relationship falls apart, he mopes, they have one more meaningful interaction before they part ways. But his character never learns or evolves throughout the movie, despite the big impact Grace was supposed to have on him.
According to the movie’s premise, we’re supposed to see Henry grow as an individual – make it through limbo alive and mature from a child to an adult. But the Henry we see at the end of the movie is the same Henry we were introduced to. He would still prefer writing over a conversation, and he hasn’t gained any new confidence or tools he can use as an adult. Quite frankly he’s a disinteresting character. We don’t anything about him other than he’s socially awkward and he likes kintsukuroi (A Japanese art of breaking pottery to glue it back together again). We never find out why, or learn anything of substance about his personality. We don’t know his dreams, his past, or his opinions about anything. We know less about him than we do Grace, and he’s supposed to be the main character. It’s hard to understand why Grace would befriend him or feel any attachment to someone we know almost nothing about.
The biggest problem with Chemical Hearts is that it doesn’t ever show us this creative description of making it through some of the hardest times of your life. There’s a reason movie’s like The Breakfast Club are so beloved by many. They don’t need to tell you that the kids are struggling, and they don’t put it in these fancy terms that no one uses in a real-life conversation. The point of a movie is to show, not tell – to put language to ideas that are too complex to be put into words. Instead, we’re treated to a movie that spends so long waxing poetry about suffering that it comes off very pretentious, and we never get to see any of these philosophies proven.
Chemical Hearts had the kernels of a great movie inside it, but spent too much time on the tragedy of the story to heat things up, and never saw it’s product to the end. The story would’ve drastically improved if Grace was the main character, and the story focused on her journey and how she made it through “teenage limbo.” That would’ve made for a more interesting movie, rather than put her pain on a pedestal for the sake of entertainment. The only thing that can be attractive about suffering is that when something is broken and put back together – like Henry’s pottery – it can become stronger. The ability to heal is what makes humans stronger, and what ultimately gets us through limbo. 2.5/5 Stars