If there were ever a perfect movie to describe the trajectory of 2020, it would be “Chemical Hearts.” Much like this year, every time you think that this movie can’t get any worse, it does.
There isn’t any one thing that makes “Chemical Hearts” difficult to watch. Rather, every individual flaw of the film builds on each of the others, creating a beautiful disaster. It starts with the premise: an overused, well-known story that everyone has seen. Henry (Austin Abrams, “Paper Towns”) meets Grace (Lili Reinhart, “Riverdale”) who is jaded and cynical and has a past. He quickly falls for her and wants to be with her. She doesn’t want that, or maybe she does. Nobody really knows.
The story of their love begins with a montage and happens too quickly for it to be realistic. At the same time, it happens slowly because neither of them are ready to be with each other. Nothing about the film is unique or special. While imperfections can sometimes make things better, that’s not the case here. The imperfections of the movie are obvious and right in your face. They hit you at the very beginning and continue as the film plays out.
Hearing “you are never more alive than when you are a teenager” in the very first line of the film had me rolling my eyes and physically cringing, because as someone who is a teenager, I’m pretty sure that’s false. The whole point of life is to find reasons to be alive, to find reasons to be happy and joyful, and if you peak when you’re a teenager, then what kind of life have you lived?
That’s the way the entire movie feels. Like it tries too hard to mean something that it could never mean. The characters are two-dimensional at best, the story is predictable and flat and the meaning is contrived.
The very first day he meets her, Henry falls in love with Grace, a girl who was injured in a car accident. But Grace doesn’t want to love him, or feels like she can’t, because her boyfriend died in the accident. And Henry, who partakes in the Japanese art form Kintsugi, which involves mending broken pottery with seams of gold, wants nothing more than to make her happy, to fix her. That isn’t exactly what makes a healthy relationship.
Another strange thing about the movie, perhaps the most unsettling thing of all, is its relationship with death. From Grace’s boyfriend’s accident to the high school newspaper’s theme, death, and especially suicide, are annoyingly and inorganically prevalent in this movie. The film doesn’t glorify death, per se, but it comes close. Teen movies have featured death a lot more than necessary in recent history, but for some reason, it seems much more obvious in this film than in others, and not in a good way.
I’ve seen tons of films like this: cheesy, teenage love stories that are all unrealistic and all nearly clones of one another. And frankly, I was hoping that the trend of making those films was coming to an end. It’s not something that we need anymore, and in all honesty, teens deserve movies that portray them in a better light. Not all teens are overly dramatic like they often seem in teen films. Teenagers should feel a connection to the people that are meant to represent them on screen.
One aspect of the film that is potentially the root of its many problems is the issue with the film’s perspective. As is the case with so many of these similar teen movies, the story and perspective mostly follow the male protagonist, Henry, in this case. While I’m sure this is done to keep a sense of mystery that typically surrounds the girl’s character, it tends to seem wrong. Grace is without a doubt the more “interesting” character in the film because of her past and the issues that she is working through. To have the film follow her would be much more interesting and unique. However, “Chemical Hearts” does what so many other John Green-type films do, in having the film follow Henry, the “observer” who falls for the “different girl.”
Bad movies can be entertaining for the sake of making fun of them, but there are different levels of bad movies. There are some that are enjoyable to watch because they’ll make you laugh in shocked disbelief that such a film exists, and there are some where you sit in silence waiting for them to be over. “Chemical Hearts” is the latter.
Arts writer Sabriya Imami can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.