Thanks to Disney’s Star Girl, I already know a movie like this — in which some poor young woman shows up from another town and sweeps a completely featureless guy off his feet — can still be made in 2020, but Chemical Hearts somehow takes this worn idea to another level.
I knew I was in for a treat within the first two minutes when I could barely understand a word the protagonist (a term I employ here very generously) was saying. Everything is incoherently mumbled with this grating adolescent lack of enthusiasm or regard for anything even slightly outside of this person’s immediate vicinity. At first I assumed this was by design, and that the arrival of the maturing agent in the form of a demeaning female archetype would inspire some sort of change or growth.
What a fool I was.
Chemical Hearts, directed by Richard Tanne of Southside with You fame, is a new film streaming on Amazon Prime starring Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams. Grace (Reinhart) transfers to another High School for her senior year and meets Henry (Abrams), the newly elected editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. The two of them slowly begin to develop a relationship, but they soon find that this pursuit is harder than it initially appears.
There’s a disproportionate number of indie movies in which this basic chain of events occurs, usually resulting in something vaguely resembling a character transformation. These stories are callous and unrealistic, but in a way that belies narrative prioritization rather than downright misguidedness. Those stories are about the way Manic Pixie Dream Girls can stir even the most timid and boring of their classmates to come out of their shells, regardless of whether or not this is properly executed (it usually isn’t).
Alas, Chemical Hearts doesn’t even appear to possess this brand of narrative innocence so profoundly devoted to the young male protagonist. What it has instead is an utterly contemptible view of romance that fetishizes an absence of personality to an infuriating degree. Austin Abrams gives one of the most egregiously insincere performances in recent memory; the director seems to have convinced him that murmuring and stammering is all there is to being mild-mannered. There’s no emotion to it, there’s no intention to it, and there really isn’t anything to it whatsoever. It’s just lines of dialogue being read in a way that drains them of any meaning or impact. There’s no humanity in the words, making the performance intensely off-putting as a result.
Lili Reinhart isn’t getting off the hook either, which is surprising considering the number of times I feel a great deal of sympathy for this character. Instead, her interpretation rings so false and uninterested that I don’t much care for her to begin with, and I just end up becoming angry with her for begrudgingly falling into the same unfortunate game that so many before her have in these films. As per usual with this structure, it’s more about the way the uninteresting boy reacts to her, and when that boy is markedly more terrible than usual, I find that I lose interest in both of them quite fast.
By presenting this framework with such a serious tone, as if there was some new ground being broken, this movie somehow managed to take what was already an intensely problematic sub-genre and pervert it into something that actually makes other Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories look far more watchable by comparison. I’ve slowly come to learn that nothing infuriates me more than when a movie with nothing to say thinks it’s important, and I’ll be damned if Chemical Hearts isn’t one of the defining examples of that. The actual conclusion it amounts to…is that being a teenager is hard.
That’s it. That’s the best this movie has, and I’m not buying it in the slightest.
It’s far from my place to comment on whether or not this movie would in any way be helpful or encouraging to actual teenagers, but what I do know is that I saw right through it with such a degree of ease that I could barely keep it turned on. For a good long while, I actually found myself having to pause it every 30 seconds or so, just so I wouldn’t completely lose my mind. And then, on top of all that, it has the audacity to never truly go off the rails. Everything plays out more or less exactly as you would expect, and without a single defining feature making the journey worthwhile. There were two separate occasions when it looked like there might be some ludicrous Bridge to Terabithia-esque reversal, and I got nothing.
There isn’t a single plot point worth noting, expected or otherwise, nor is there any comment or observation made that necessitates anything beyond the writings found within a fortune cookie. Calling this movie an empty void is an insult to empty voids everywhere. This is a black hole, a powerful vacuum sucking away any nuance that it happens upon, and jerking away my faith and capacity for even the base level of amusement along with it. Please just watch To the Stars instead.