Based on a novel by Krystal Sutherland and directed by Richard Tanne, Chemical Hearts contains all the trappings of solid teen-fiction fascinations. At the center, there’ s a moody young relationship between two high schoolers whose unstable grasp on life causes lots of tears and swerving emotions. There’s a dark tragedy that haunts one of them. There’s even references to Neruda’s poetry that cites “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
But in between these eye-rolling characteristics of the genre, there’s also a supreme delicacy in telling a story that understands the incremental honesty and trust that develops in a new relationship, sold brightly by its two young leads and Tanne’s sure-handed direction that balances the mush with the masterful. It’s not an easy task, but Chemical Hearts should appeal to a variety of ages: those who fawn over the novel and others like it, and those looking for a movie that brushes a naturalistic light on young love.
The couple at the center are Henry (Austin Abrams of Euphoria) and new transfer student Grace (Lili Reinhardt, so great in last year’s Hustlers). They meet outside the office of the school newspaper where Henry notices her reading from the above-mentioned Neruda poetry. His awkward advances are shrugged off, naturally, and he only becomes more intrigued by Grace when she casually rebuffs the offer to be co-editor with him on the upcoming school newsletter.
It’s not only this decline of a great opportunity that interests Henry (after all, his only ambition in life is to write for a living), but Grace’s aura of sadness and mystery, embellished by the walker she uses in moving around and the damaged way she reflects every bit of attention thrown her direction. Grace is a magnificently haunted young woman, and through Henry’s slight chipping away of the stone, the two become friends and ultimately something more.
As more and more of Grace’s past become overt, Chemical Hearts does lose a bit of its allure. The first half, as the two spend time together and Henry becomes a confused witness to the sadness lingering within Grace, builds up rapport between the two actors with sincerity. It’s something filmmaker Tanne is acutely aware of, as his previous film Southside With You (2016) sweetly chronicled an imaginary first date between a young (future President) Obama and (future First Lady) Michelle. And though Chemical Hearts dispenses with that film’s short window of time and studies Henry and Grace over a fraught final semester of high school, the timid steps of enrapture, intelligence, heartbreak and growth that evolves in a relationship is just as incisive. Perhaps he’s hedging for this generation’s Richard Linklater award.
This is not to say the latter half of the film is a failure. Far from it. By the time the heavy stuff hits, we care about Grace and Henry and feel the gut-punch of rejection that much more, but it still all feels a bit orchestrated for maximum John-Greene-morose-teen effect. Regardless, Chemical Hearts deftly illustrates the illogical mania behind young love. Who hasn’t smashed a cassette tape of a certain song because it belonged to “us” as a couple and couldn’t be endured after that couple no longer existed? Who hasn’t sat up at night pondering the simplest inflection of a text message?
All of this may redundant in teen fiction, but it hits hardest because it happens, no matter your age. Chemical Hearts swims in this heartbreak magnificently and reminds us that, yes, most love does exist between a shadow and a soul.
The film will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday, August 21.