Chemical Hearts overcomes an execrable screenplay on the strength of Lili Reinhart and Austin Abram’s strong performances and skilled direction.
There’s a scene in Chemical Hearts that’s so jarringly bad it’s actually difficult for me to process. Lili Reinhart stands in a lovely koi pond in the midst of an abandoned factory and looks up at the stars. The light pollution of the film’s New Jersey setting disappears and the stars glow as brightly as the film’s CGI budget allows. And then she proceeds to opine on intransigence of the atoms that make up her life. It’s embarrassing, and one of the dopiest, least credible scenes in a movie in 2020. And yet, I still kind of liked Chemical Hearts.
Chemical Hearts is yet another entry in the damaged teen romance genre that has seen a resurgence in the wake of the success of films like The Fault in Our Stars. Here, the genre’s Mad Libs have given us a girl tortured by some unknown (but predictable) tragedy that sees her walk with a cane and eschew normal human interactions and a boy from the too handsome to actually be a nerdy outcast school of casting. Perhaps the most important element to each of these movies is the chemistry between the leads, and Chemical Hearts’ greatest success is in its lead performers.
The girl, named Grace Town as only a character in a romance could be, is played with great depth and feeling by Lili Reinhart. Reinhart, most famous for her TV work in Riverdale, does her best to sell some truly cringe-worthy dialogue. Her more naturalistic, less overwritten scenes, are genuinely a joy. She manages to exude a believably geeky quality and has real chemistry with her scene partner. That suitor, played with nebbish charm by Austin Abrams (Euphoria, This Is Us), helps make the film work. Abrams believably pines for Reinhart and has a great nervy energy. His character has a lovely family dynamic – his parents (played by Bruce Altman, of Show Me a Hero, and Meg Gibson, of Vox Lux)’s relationship with their son feels believed in and real. One scene that sees Abrams’ caught in a lie about his evening plans is a real showpiece for effective good-hearted parenting, and a tribute to the performers. But the film’s success resides with Reinhart and Abrams: their scenes together pop, even when the dialogue borders on farce.
The film is surprisingly adroitly directed as well, far better than the genre usually musters. One lovely scene sees our couple in a tiff: as they come together in a kiss the camera seems to slam between and shift into a light Dutch tilt and as they depart one another, the tension not yet resolved, it pulls away in a long dolly shot. The actors are always framed in ways that accentuate their performances and the editing is calm and reserved. Even the dopey abandoned industrial koi pond is beautifully lensed.
I’m left conflicted about the movie. I cannot recall a movie with a screenplay I liked less than this one, that I otherwise found to be quite successful. The clichés and overwriting come so close to overwhelming Chemical Hearts that it seems a miracle that Reinhart and Abrams have managed to find something human and real to ground their relationship. All told, it makes for a reasonably successful teen drama.