By Marta Macedo, Third Year, Film and Television
Even if it does nothing new, the Amazon Studios original Chemical Hearts (2020) keeps you watching. Adapted from Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel, Our Chemical Hearts, the film stars Austin Abrams and Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart in the roles of two high-schoolers navigating the overwhelming confusion that is adolescence.
Henry (Abrams), a self-proclaimed hopelessly romantic writer yearns for something worth writing about to happen to him. Enter Grace (Reinhart), a new transfer to the school with a broody, angsty attitude that spells tragic backstory – need I say more? The entire premise of the film is set up in the initial voice over, in which we are introduced to Henry’s world and his thoughts on the intensity of those much talked about teenage years.
Abrams’ hesitant delivery, the way he translates Henry’s preference for the written word over ever actually having to speak, reminds us all of our younger, stammering selves, unsure of our place in life. That indecision, so intrinsic to our adolescence, takes us back to the more confused and adrift versions of us and even if his story seems a bit too close for comfort to Stuck In Love (2012), we can easily set those thoughts aside as when it really comes down to it, teenagers are not as unique as they like to think they are.
Grace’s dismal outlook on life is nothing we haven’t seen before: haunted by the tragedies in her past, this incredibly intelligent girl has learnt to firmly guard herself, allowing nothing to push through her walls – until, of course, someone does. Though Reinhart lends nothing new to the character, her joyless, nihilistic perspective breeds a strong sense of familiarity for anyone who’s ever had the displeasure of having once been a teenager.
Although it veers closer and closer to melodrama as it approaches the climax, Chemical Hearts delves into deeper and more serious topics than the average teen movie, even if the ending and supposed resolution may come across as a bit lacklustre. As Henry himself says, “you are never more alive than when you are a teenager”. Everything hits you with an intensity incomparable to anything that will come later in life and though, as most of us later learn, that’s not the case, there is an almost staggering sense of infinity to all that surrounds you. While not a particularly original concept, this is a teen film entirely about what being a teen actually feels like.
With cinematography that can only really be described as pretty, aided by a soundtrack that subverts none of our expectations, including the likes of The XX, Beach House, Meduza and SYMC, the film lacks any sort of an innovative touch. Even its attempts at being original mostly come across as pretentiously quirky – let’s be realistic, no teenager analyses Pablo Neruda’s work in the school courtyard.
Everything in this film, from the sun glare in the camera lens to the teacher desperate to inspire the next generation, screams teen movie. At points, it feels as if someone actually ran through a check list of every genre convention established in the last twenty odd years and proceeded to make a film out of it. It’s a story seen countless times before, told through a predictable script bursting at the seams with overused lines, and yet something about it keeps you hooked. Maybe a crave for that strength of emotion one more time, maybe just a confirmation that we weren’t entirely alone back then.
Featured: Amazon Prime / YouTube, IMDb
Have you seen Chemical Hearts?