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Movie Guru: ‘Chemical Hearts’ bends teen love movie tropes

Why is the brooding, angsty teen love interest never a girl?

If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, then you should check out “Chemical Hearts.” Streaming this weekend on Amazon Prime, the movie offers a thoughtful, melancholic, and deeply sympathetic look at what it’s like to be a teenager. It also transforms a lot of traditional teenage romance tropes with a fresh breath of realism, making them both more heartbreaking and surprisingly more touching at the same moment.

Lili Reinhart, most known for “Riverdale,” plays protagonist Grace Park in “Chemical Hearts.”
© Amazon

The movie starts like many teenage movies do, with the internal monologue of the protagonist as they talk about the new school year and their first meeting with the brooding, mysterious new kid. Grace Park is said new kid, and when she turns down the chance to be co-editor of the school newspaper Henry follows her home to see why she won’t do it. As the two grow closer, Henry discovers that Grace has more secrets than he ever could have imagined.

An adaptation of a best-selling YA novel “Our Chemical Hearts,” the movie manages to dramatically improve on the book by shaking itself free of a lot of the genre’s more tired tropes. Henry is quite a bit less romance-obsessed than he is in the novel, and a lot of the endless stretches of youthful internal monologue have been replaced by silences that let the emotions breathe more. “Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest writing adages, and Richard Tanne’s screenplay does just that for all the characters’ awkwardness, love and pain.

For those who don’t know this particular book, but do know teen romances, there’s a familiar sense of transformation. It does a particularly good job tackling the concept of the manic pixie dream girl, a narrative cliché where a dull, usually white boy gets his life transformed when a beautiful, free-spirited girl falls in love with him. Sometimes girls have their own lives that have nothing to do with you, and sometimes boys do genuinely want to help. Sometimes, that doesn’t make a difference.

Lili Reinhart, known for “Riverdale,” is great as the brooding Grace, showing flashes of both sadness and fury beneath a disinterested façade that should seem familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to shut out the world. Austin Abrams, from “Paper Towns,” has a tougher role as Henry, who is mostly there to be awkward though well-meaning and bad with words. The fact that he comes across as entirely sympathetic, and that you end up genuinely hurting for him, is a credit to Abrams’ talent.  

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. Henry’s friends get short shrift, which makes the movie’s final scene less significant than it was surely intended. Seeing more of them would have given the movie even more nuance, and if done right could have strengthened themes that were only hinted at in the final version.

Still, there’s something lovely and unexpected about what did end up happening onscreen. It might not be a traditional love story, but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Chemical Hearts

Rated R for language, sexuality and teen drug use

Screenplay by: Richard Tanne

Based on the novel by: Krystal Sutherland

Directed by: Richard Tanne

Starring: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Kara Young, Coral Peña, C.J. Hoff, Shannon Walsh, Bruce Altman, Meg Gibson, Adhir Kalyan and more

Grade: Three stars

Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at themovieguruslc@gmail.com


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