Don’t call “Chemical Hearts” a YA romance?
True, on paper, the story of a precocious teenager named Henry who becomes emotionally entangled with Grace, a psychologically wounded young woman, sounds very much in the vein of “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Looking for Alaska.” But Richard Tanne, the film’s writer and director, said that what drew him to “Chemical Hearts” was its underlining sense of melancholy and its willingness to deconstruct certain cliches of the genre.
The film, which begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Aug. 21, marks Tanne’s followup to 2016’s “Southside With You,” a romantic drama that received acclaim for the audacity with which it imagined Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. The movie marked Tanne’s directorial debut. His sophomore effort adapts Krystal Sutherland’s novel “Our Chemical Hearts” and stars Austin Abrams (“Euphoria”) as Henry and Lili Reinhart (“Riverdale”) as Grace. Tanne spokes with Variety about avoiding the dreaded “YA” label, researching high school life, and what the 44th president thought of “Southside With You.”
Why did you want to make ‘Chemical Hearts’?
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I was drawn to the way that the book embraced the darkness and the pain of being young. When I think back to my high school years, there were some good times, but a lot of what comes to mind is the loneliness that you feel and the growing pains. You have to cross this threshold to get from adolescence to adulthood. I’d be hard pressed to call the story of Henry and Grace a love story. I don’t think Henry is actually in love with Grace. He just thinks he’s in love with her. Grace isn’t in love with him either. They’re just two people who need each other in this moment. Their story is one of growth through failure and through tragedy and trauma.
Is this a YA story?
If you see promotions for it, you’d get the sense it was a YA romance. It’s certainly being written about by reporters that way. To be sure, it does possess all of those elements of a coming-of-age story, but one element that is not really hinted at in the materials is its undercurrent of melancholy. This is a movie that grapples with mortality. The marketing, I think wisely, elides that. YA is a successful container upon which this story can reach an audience, because it’s a label that has seen its stock rise since Hollywood hit pay dirt adapting Nicholas Sparks and John Green novels. But I just think of this as a movie about young people, which is no different than “Rushmore” or “Ghost World” or any of the movies I enjoyed as a child of the ’90s. The book ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ really takes aim at some of the superficiality of YA novels.
In what ways does the novel challenge the tropes of a YA story?
Krystal took dead aim at the manic pixie dream girl cliche. This story is about Henry’s journey of self-discovery, but he’s not aided in that by some quirky, flawless girl. He ends up realizing that he’s obsessed with an idealized version of Grace and that she’s actually a multi-dimensional person. She’s not there solely to be a ballast for him through his suffering and to be around to serve simply as a romantic interest.
Henry is obviously book-smart, but he’s emotionally naive. Is that a dichotomy you wanted to explore?
Absolutely. I did that with “Southside With You” in terms of a young Barack Obama. He’s a cool customer, but he doesn’t understand Michelle Obama’s perspective as a young woman working in a male-dominated law firm. He has to grow still.
Speaking of “Southside With You,” did the Obamas ever watch the film?
I have no idea. John Legend was one of our executive producers and he’s close with the Obamas. He certainly made it available to them and talked to them about it, so they’re aware of its existence. I think they intended to watch it, but I never followed up to find out if they actually did.
“Chemical Hearts” includes a sex scene that takes pains to be realistically awkward without veering into parody. Nor is it some glamorized, gauzy depiction of people having sex for the first time. Was that difficult to pull off?
Definitely. We worked with an intimacy coordinator to make sure Lili and Austin felt safe and secure. Of course we limited the crew there. It was a very challenging scene to figure out in the editing room. I knew how to shoot it. We knew how to light it. But what I found in the editing room was there was a tricky balance to strike. On the one hand, it’s Henry’s first time and there’s something sweet and charming in how nervous he is. He’s trying to be good at sex and not look like a fool. However, it’s not Grace’s first time, but it is her first time having sex since losing someone she loved a great deal. She’s opening up to another person, but feeling some resistance about doing that. We needed to capture all of those competing emotions and the only way to do it was by showing the actors’ microscopic expressions. There was so much going on with both of their faces.
You’re a decade or more removed from high school. What kind of research did you do to make sure the film was authentic.
I’m 35 now and I was 34 when I wrote the screenplay. I feel pretty damn removed from being a teenager. One of the thrills of making this was that we shot it in and around my hometown in New Jersey. I was shooting on streets that I used to drive through and in forests that I walked around. That helped me reconnect with certain feelings. Also, I had Lili and Austin and they had the freedom to approach me and say this doesn’t sound right or this wouldn’t happen like that.
I ignored one note, however. A young relative of mine said that Henry wouldn’t Facebook-stalk Grace, because younger kids don’t go on Facebook. Their parents do. That’s probably true, but I like the set up of it, and I wanted to show him staring at his laptop screen. It just worked better for it to be Facebook and not Instagram or some other social media platform.