The MPAA has long placed teen movies in a tricky bind: When they reflect the lives of their young target audience a little too relatably, they’re slapped with a rating that excludes the very demographic they’re about. It’s an irony that corners too many films in the genre into a safely sanitized PG-13 space, clean and cute and not entirely real. That “Chemical Hearts” has bitten the bullet and accepted an R initially bodes well: Unafraid of depicting casual teenage swearing, drug-taking and modest sexual activity, Richard Tanne’s melancholic, tastefully presented romance promises a more mature, impressionistic take on standard adolescent rites of passage. It’s going out on Amazon Prime, after all: Who’s going to keep the kids away?
Yet for all its serious-faced surface grit, “Chemical Hearts” never quite rings true. There’s a lot of solemn pondering here on the disorienting nature of so-called “teenage limbo,” with its erratic emotions and precarious hormonal surges, yet this isn’t life as almost any teenager watching might know it. With its sadcore stylings, Pablo Neruda quotations, and a curated indie soundtrack studded with Sharon Van Etten and The xx, the film can’t help but resemble a millennial adult’s ideal of what first love should have been like. That may make it rather more chic than many of its genre peers, but it’s a slight letdown from Tanne, whose 2016 debut “Southside With You” — an unexpectedly disarming imagining of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date — promised a fresher perspective on youthful matters of the heart.
“Chemical Hearts” is largely dependent on its leads, then, to make it more moving picture than mood board — and it has two fine ones, both fresh from sparkier teen TV favorites. As anxious senior-year lovers battling oversized emotional baggage to see their relationship through to graduation day, Lili Reinhart (“Riverdale”) and Austin Abrams (“Euphoria”) commit valiantly and sensitively to slender characters who never stop telling us how they’re feeling: The script, adapted by Tanne from Krystal Sutherland’s YA bestseller “Our Chemical Hearts,” could stand to trust them a little more.
Well-off New Jersey lad Henry (Abrams) is a high-school wallflower and aspiring writer who likes to fix broken things — to the extent that his side hobby is kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with golden joinery. (If you’re wondering whether this metaphor is a bit much, consider yourself not on the film’s wavelength.) Yet mending enigmatic new arrival Grace (Reinhart), who walks with a limp and a fixed, mournful expression, may be beyond his capabilities. When they’re paired to edit the school newspaper, he’s immediately drawn to her guarded intelligence and discerning taste in poetry, but it’s increasingly clear she’s nursing trauma that far outweighs his limited, cosseted life experience.
So far, so good, so sad. Yet “Chemical Hearts” takes only 30 minutes to unlock exactly what Grace’s deal is, leaving the film’s remaining hour to run in place as the kids’ star-crossed relationship runs its entirely expected course. There could be more layers and nuances to this anti-drama if Tanne let us into Grace’s head a little more, but this is oddly framed as Henry’s story, and it simply isn’t much of one. A narrator who admits upfront that “nothing interesting or remarkable has ever happened to me,” he’s a kindly but clueless witness to his crush’s thornier, more volatile emotional arc, and progresses from not understanding her at all to understanding her a little.
A subtler film could imbue this micronarrative with great poignancy. This one winds up swamped by its script’s grandiose reflections on neurochemistry, existential exhaustion and, superficially and somewhat dubiously, the legacy of teen suicide. On occasion, one of the film’s many, free-floating, pop-philosophical ideas hits a tender spot, and Reinhart and Abrams emerge as plausibly messy, vulnerable people, not just vessels of prettified, heavily written feeling. No secondary character is as lucky: Henry has two best friends whose names you couldn’t recall at gunpoint once the credits have rolled.
“Chemical Hearts” is rarely less than agreeable to watch: It’s handsomely shot in misty teals and grays by Albert Salas, it appealingly showcases two young actors ready for more robust starring vehicles, and any fans of Baltimore dream-pop outfit Beach House may be glad to know that their lovely 2010 track “Take Care” gets every last ounce of pathos wrung from it in its role as the film’s musical leitmotif. (It’s hauled out at least four times — again, Tanne more more taste than restraint.) Still, as we’re told here many times over, being a teenager is hard. This film never is.