Love is a feeling generated by chemicals in the brain, suggests Suds, the practical, science-versed older sister of Henry, in Chemical Hearts. It’s also a feeling generated by this deliciously gooey romance. If there’s room each year for one gorgeous indie teenage love movie then this is the 500 Days of Summer of 2020.
Henry is the nerdy high school kid whose long-term goal is to be a writer. Shorter term his ambition stretches to editing the school paper. Dropping into his world one day like an alien from outer space is Grace, a spiky, withdrawn, slightly sneery girl who’s smart, bookish and into the love poems of Pablo Neruda. Oh dear. He’s instantly smitten.
Grace walks with a limp, a result of the car accident that killed the love of her life, a clever, handsome, sporty intellectual against whom Henry will never measure up. And that’s the setup – the geek fighting not just for the hand of fair lady, but against an impossible rival, a dead one whose lustre has only been polished by his absence.
Traditionally it’s the girls who pine for the difficult/damaged hero in romances, but writers Richard Tanne (who also directs) and Krystal Sutherland neatly and successfully flip the formula, loading all the darkness onto the blonde Grace, while Henry bubbles and flaps around at the edges wondering how he’s going to make his mark with this mysterious and possibly dangerous new arrival. Being nice, he decides, is a strategy. Bumblingly, figuring it out as he goes, Henry pushes into unknown territory.
The casting is key. Reinhart is genuinely beguiling as Grace. Having cut through against the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in a small part in the pole-dancing drama Hustlers, she is also highly effective here. Grace isn’t just an attitudinal loner she also comes draped in enough vestiges of the traditional romantic heroine (damaged, sick, often terminally ill) to allow this film to fit neatly into its genre slot. It both is and isn’t your standard teenage romance.
Henry (Austin Abrams) is your likeable, personable, fresh-faced teenaged guy. Not square jawed like the dead boyfriend glimpsed in impossibly heroic flashback. Floppy hair. She’s hot, he’s not is the basic idea, and as that idea starts to assert itself more and more as the story progresses, it becomes clearer just how good the casting is (even if, at about 24, both of them are a touch old for their roles).
It really is a film about these two. His know-all sister (Sarah Jones, very good) with the biochemical interpretation of the emotions, his supportive, dependable, funny classmates (Kara Young, CJ Hoff, Coral Peña) are all likeable enough though hardly essential, and provide just enough ballast to sustain the “boy loses girl” bits of the story, when Grace recedes slightly in the mix.
Talking of which, there is a really disorienting revelation towards the end that casts Grace in new light, when it’s revealed she doesn’t live with her own parents – no spoilers.
Being an indie-flavoured thing, it has a soundtrack on which there is no presence of ELO (who for unfathomable reasons have been a mainstream go-to for at least 15 years now). Instead the likes of Sharon Van Etten (says the imdb, I didn’t hear her), The xx, Tinashe, Perfume Genius, Meduza and Beach House pepper the soundtrack with songs (Vulnerable, Die for You, Piece of Your Heart) suggesting bright young things hovering near the Emo end of the spectrum.
Sex. It nails its indie colours to the mast there as well, something the mainstream movie is still exceptionally coy about. Carefully, almost diplomatically, a romance with enough grit for those who like it rough, and enough sweetness for diehard romantics. Chemical Hearts gets the chemistry just right.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021