Teenage emotions are a complex concoction of hormones and vanity. It is like existing in the smallest of bubbles where you convince yourself you are the only one who feels, and you cannot understand why everyone else keeps on going when your life is breaking apart. So many of the experiences within these bubbles are trivial, though they might not appear so at the time. Bad grades, breakups, tattered high school friendships, each become their own Everest inside the bubbles. Krystal Sutherland’s debut novel, Our Chemical Hearts, delves into this innately human sensation but expresses it in such a way that real heartbreaking tragedy is at the centre. Now Richard Tanne is bringing us the film adaption of her book, simply titled Chemical Hearts, and although I am sure to some it will lean too heavily on its young adult fiction roots, it vividly visualises the giant broken pieces smashed up inside those tiny little bubbles, something never easy to do.
Henry Page (Austin Abrams) enters his final high school year never having had anything interesting happen to him. In what is more or less his own words, he has not lived a life worth writing about. Grace Town (Lili Reinhart) is almost his polar opposite, having lived a life of Shakespearean proportions leaving her physically and emotionally crippled. The two meet when offered the role of joint editors of the school paper, which Grace promptly declines, forcing Henry to confront her. The story then unfolds to tell of Henry’s attempts to connect with Grace and see if maybe they can piece together what is revealed to be her fractured reality.
The film plays out like a diary entry; one played to the tune of Take Care by Beach House. Henry’s life never fully formes for us, his existence from our perspective solely revolves around Grace, as if he were only detailing the most intimate and special moments of his life and ignoring everything else. This leaves the film with a strange void of its own creation, one which arises from the fact both the book and the script include multiple side characters, who in the film, are aimlessly hollow and shockingly pointless. They become unwelcome debris sucked into a vacuum that was seemingly only supposed to be home to Henry and Grace. However, while it may not be a perfect adaption of the many characters of the book, it is a stirring representation of the love story at its core.
That love story is a turbulent one, bathed in the same light of many similar films and miniseries. There is an air of “This has been done before” as it reeks of John Green, and how could it not? The book tells a quintessential young adult story, and he is the modern-day sovereign of the genre. So, the links to Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars are there, and had it been written ten years ago Shailene Woodley would have been a ring-in to play Grace. Yet, the film manages to weave its own path. Where Green’s stories tell of cataclysmic moments and circumstances that alter his characters, Sutherland’s tells of moving on from such moments. Kintsugi is the conceit the film uses to symbolise this, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery and painting the cracks gold. As the movie goes on, it becomes a poignant metaphor for their relationship, one bolstered by the incredible work by the up and comers behind the camera.
Just like spontaneous love should be the film is idealised in every fashion. Grace is thoroughly intriguing, and Henry thoroughly is not, unless he is with her. Together they form a duo somehow capable of living up to the otherworldly place Tanne sets them in. New Jersey becomes so much more than the garden state when these two find themselves isolated within it. It becomes home to a daunting plight to move on and an endless battle to try and find the right words. The cinematography is the hero of this achievement, performed here by Albert Salas. The entire project is well filmed but every now and then there is a truly stunning shot out of nowhere displaying the teens experiencing the highs of youth as they navigate one another. At times it generates an etheral feeling to the film, one making everything more than what it seems, which perfectly brings to life how it feels to be a teenager who sees love exlcusibly through rose-tinted glasses.
Performance is an interesting piece in the young adult film puzzle. They are rarely of a calibre to make a splash in the awards season ethos. I can say with certainty these performances will not change that, but I can also attest to the fact that they are very good. Abrams faultlessly stumbles his way along as the out of his depth Henry, who is often bewildered and at a loss for words. And Reinhart is more than his enigmatic equal, and nails her pysically demanding performance. Though it is worth saying she shines far brighter when Grace lets her emotions out rather than when she represses them.
When all is said and done, Chemical Hearts offers no more and no less than what you would expect from the general young adult fair. Nevertheless these stories from inside the bubbles need to be told, because so many of them happen everyday.
Dir: Richard Tanne
Scr: Richard Tanne
Cast: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones
Prd: Alex Saks, Richard Tanne
DOP: Albert Salas
Music: Stephen James Taylor
Run time: 93 minutes
Chemical Hearts is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 21 August.