Chemical Hearts: Following the teen angst formula with flair

Review: The film deals with the trials of Gen Z, but could apply to any generation

Chemical Hearts
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Director: Richard Tanne
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Austin Abrams, Lili Reinhart, Kara Young, Coral Peña, CJ Hoff
Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins

The latest premiere from Amazon Prime concerns a sensitive young man's interactions with an equally sensitive – if somewhat less inhibited – young colleague on the school newspaper.

Adapted from a popular novel by Krystal Sutherland, Chemical Hearts has much to say about the traumas of being on the brink of adulthood. "You're never more alive than when you're a teenager," someone suggests. That may or may not be so. But it's certainly the sort of thing adults have always said when looking back at their youth. Intensity of feeling is read as a measure of aliveness.

The script makes it clear we are dealing with the trials of Generation Z. Idiots who think the term "millennial" still covers teenagers may like to ponder the chilling news that older people in the bracket could comfortably be parents to sweet Henry (Austin Abrams) and ill-tempered Grace (Lili Reinhart). That is, thank heavens, not the case.

Henry, an aspiring writer, lives in borderline harmony with reassuringly middle-aged parents in some hazy, drifty corner of the American suburbs (actually New York-adjacent New Jersey). His life gets knocked about when he is asked to share editorial duties with the newly arrived Grace. They spark off one another. They exchange warmer thoughts. We suspect the romantic kindling is about to set alight.


Here’s the thing. Any greybeard seeking tips on how the late adolescent experience has changed over the decades will be disappointed (or, perhaps, reassured). The troubles that assail Grace and Henry, both born in this century, are the same as those that bothered millennial teens in Mean Girls, Generation X teens in Pretty in Pink, boomer teens in To Sir, With Love or even (honestly, this is a thing) silent generation teens in Rebel Without a Cause.

This point is made explicit in the script when Grace waves copies of The Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet in Henry’s face. There is, of course, some engagement with social media, but the tensions and the language used to express those tensions remain eerily unaltered.

Henry peers over Grace's shoulder as she works through a  Pablo Neruda sonnet

We live with a mystery for the opening third of the picture. Grace walks with a crutch and, at first, is unforthcoming about how she damaged her leg. We dabble instead in precious – but convincing – conversations about poetry and the awfulness of not quite being an adult.

Henry peers over Grace's shoulder as she works through a Pablo Neruda sonnet. Later, he makes an effort to claim Neruda fandom, but gets the poet's name wrong and – worse still in Grace's world – makes the mistake of describing the verse as "beautiful". Oops! "That's what people say when read a poem they don't understand," she quips back. It sounds as if journalism may really be her calling.

You know how this works out. The shy, cossetted young man is encouraged to engage more aggressively with life. The troubled, damaged young woman is eased a little way from her debilitating grief.

Richard Tanne, who made something not entirely insufferable of the Michelle-loves-Barack drama Southside with You, teases warm performances from his two young stars. Abrams, an alumnus of The Walking Dead, seems permanently on the brink. Lili Reinhart, a star of Riverdale, works every drop of poignancy from her character's tragic history. Their ultimate connection is believable.

There is not much original personality to Chemical Hearts. Poised somewhere between a John Green adaptation and something a bit more Sundancey, it ambles through comforting groves towards a largely familiar place of safety. The music is standard indie. The cinematography is off-the-peg dreamy. But it is carried off with such sincerity that only those from the Grumpiest Generation will easily resist.

Streams on Amazon Prime from August 21st

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist