“Chemical Hearts” subverts tired teen tropes

In Chemical Hearts, watery protagonist Henry (Austin Abrams) is preoccupied with coloring and imagining the impassive Grace (Lili Reinhardt).

On a recent Saturday morning—the kind where the cloud cover is high and the only source of entertainment is watching my pour-over coffee drip, drip into a mug, during the kind of lethargic stretch that could almost be melancholy if it wasn’t so satisfying—I watched the movie Chemical Hearts.

Even if you haven’t heard of Chemical Hearts, its premise is familiar. It begins with a voice-over of a high school senior lamenting teenage life. There are familiar scenes of kids walking through hallways and filling chemistry beakers and drinking from red solo cups. But Henry, our lanky protagonist, tells us he’s still awaiting the electrifying moments promised in teenage lore, the tragic love and adventure we are told ensues at the age of 17.

Enter Grace, a pouty, pretty girl with the kind of sad beauty that indicates Henry’s hopes for adventure hinge on tortured romance. Henry and Grace, a transfer student who walks with a cane (her physical brokenness embodies her tragic past) are assigned to be co-editors of the school newspaper. And after Henry asks for a ride home from school, he is consumed with piecing together her past, with figuring out her pain. 

But while Chemical Hearts is ridden with cliche and platitudes, it also subverts these banalities by wearing them on its sleeve. It does not try to hide its source material, or cloak itself in false ingenuity. It mocks its own reliance on a manic pixie dream girl to breathe life into a suburban 17-year-old boy’s fantasies.

There’s no dearth of romanticized accounts of teenagerhood. Films (Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, The Fault in Our Stars), music (Lorde’s “Melodrama,” most of Taylor Swift’s discography, Billie Eilish), books (Chemical Hearts name-checks titles from Romeo and Juliet to Catcher in the Rye, with plenty in between), all piece together an exaggerated narrative of what it means to be a young adult.

Chemical Hearts knows it’s just shouting into the void of harried teenage angst. Henry is not an overly interesting character; the film is located in nondescript suburban New Jersey; even the vehicle of a school newspaper to drive the plot is derivative. But what’s unique about the film is that it doesn’t allow Grace to change Henry. It insists that the “dream girl” is a multifaceted individual whose consciousness exists outside of “sensitive” male characters’ imagination.

One embodied metaphor is Henry’s hobby of gluing together broken shards of pottery. It’s a Japanese art form called kintsugi, and it’s one of the more obvious symbolisms of Henry’s desire to put Grace back together. Interestingly, the film imagines that Henry’s efforts work. Through unremarkable montages, real but unreliable because of Henry’s warped view of things, viewers watch as Grace lets Henry in—she sits next to him in the cafeteria, takes her headphones out at the newspaper meeting and shows up to a Halloween party. There’s hints that Henry’s dreams are being realized, that Grace is the love he’s been waiting for.

Because the film is shown through Henry’s nearsighted perspective, most images are blurred by foggy glasses. There are messy shapes, frayed edges, semblances of people. Nothing is sturdy or reliable enough to tell a complete story. Reality lies on the other side of Henry’s reveries, in the moments where people’s exteriors begin to crack and real human emotion begins to flow like lava. One such moment arrives in an abandoned warehouse, where Grace dons a wedding dress and flower crown, her own crushed dreams eradicating Henry’s fixation on mutual love.

And soon enough, the seemingly unblemished romance proves unstable. People are more complicated than fractured pottery. Romance cannot be manifested with glue. As Grace resists Henry’s suffocating attention, her own grief swallows her whole. And the fogged glasses we’re looking through clear up: in plain sight, Grace’s damage is not a romantic puzzle to solve, it’s just mental illness.

All of this is to say there is value in Chemical Hearts’s hackneyed approach. The tragic teen romance narrative is common, but somehow not tired. There must be a reason we are all drawn to stories of the fleeting first moments of heartache. That we continue to rewrite different musings on the inevitability of adolescent sadness. That we demarcate our first feelings of love and heartbreak as intensely formative and affecting.

We’ve all watched as depictions of fleeting, imagined love fall apart; reality isn’t as magical as the inventive world. But Chemical Hearts‘s conscious adaptation of fantasy is deeply felt in ways most other films can’t achieve. In critiquing its own genre it humanizes the instincts to romanticize someone else’s interior world. But it also humanizes that dream girl trope, composing her of matter.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for writing this so beautifully. I very much felt the same way when watching this movie and you captured what makes it unique by emphasizing how it mocks its own very premise, almost un-romanticizing the mainstream teenage romance involving broken or flawed people.

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