Chemical Hearts is a teenage romance for adults and not merely because it’s rated R. Any film can throw in some four-letter words and call itself “adult-oriented.” Yet, few modern films tackle teen angst and teen trauma as well as this adaptation of Krystal Sutherland’s novel. What makes Chemical Hearts so refreshing is that it doesn’t succumb to the conventions we often see in teen dramas, at least not the frustrating ones. There isn’t a villain who tries to tear our lovers apart or a third-act misunderstanding. The film simply shows two people trying to live their lives, often hitting internal roadblocks. This is one of those movies where you keep waiting for the filmmakers to throw in a manipulative curveball, but Chemical Hearts respects its characters and audience throughout.
Austin Abrams plays Henry, an aspiring journalist who becomes editor at his high school newspaper. His teacher wishes to give a co-editor position to a new girl named Grace, played by Lili Reinhart. Despite thriving at her old school, Grace isn’t interested in the gig and seems content with keeping to herself. Henry becomes fascinated by Grace, but thankfully not in a creepy stalker way. Grace also takes a shine to the Henry, although she remains guarded every step of the way.
Considering that Grace walks around with a cane and doesn’t like driving, the audience can quickly piece together what happened to her. When Henry looks her up online, what he finds isn’t a major shock. This turns out to only be half of the mystery, though. When we learn Grace’s whole story, it’s a heartbreaking moment that feels earned. What’s more, it’s a moment that was smartly built up through visual storytelling and subtle hints. Occasionally the symbolism is a bit on the nose, such as when Henry tries to put a broken pot back together. The film also could’ve done without Henry’s occasional narration. For the most part, however, Chemical Hearts successfully shows rather than tells.
While Abrams gives a solid performance, the film belongs to Reinhart. Best known for playing Betty Cooper on Riverdale, Reinhart has branched out with fun supporting roles in films like Hustlers. In Chemical Hearts, she delivers her finest acting showcase to date. As Grace, Reinhart masters a tricky balancing act of being cold yet likable and strong yet vulnerable. She also isn’t afraid to “ugly cry,” digging deep into Grace’s damaged soul. If Reinhart continues to take on mature roles like this, she could have a career like Michelle Williams’. Just as Williams went from Dawson’s Creek to four-time Oscar nominee, Hollywood is Reinhart’s oyster.
Chemical Hearts doesn’t quite reach the heights of something like Hulu’s Normal People, which may be the best modern representation of young love and young heartbreak. A few of the film’s supporting players also feel underutilized, namely Henry’s best friends and cynical sister. They aren’t the focus of the story, though. The film is about Grace’s trauma, Henry’s hopeless romanticism, and how they help each other grow as individuals. The ending is an honest one that doesn’t mend all wounds, but it will leave younger viewers feeling more grown-up.
Chemical Hearts releases exclusively to Amazon Prime on August 21.