By Mary Sollosi
August 20, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Amazon Studios

How to follow up a Sundance breakout? Once a director has made a star-making debut or record-breaking deal at the iconic indie fest, their next feature comes with great interest, whether they stick with the Park City scene or get fast-tracked to franchise filmmaking. Four years ago, Richard Tanne broke out at the festival with the romantic Southside With You, and his sophomore feature, Chemical Hearts, hits Amazon Prime this week. An adaptation of Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel Our Chemical Hearts, Tanne’s second film doesn’t live up to the promise of his first, lacking its texture and specificity, but still offers small insights and worthy central performances.

Austin Abrams (Euphoria) stars as Henry Page, a literary-minded teen who hopes to be named editor-in-chief of his school newspaper as a senior. When the school year begins, however, he’s told he’ll be sharing the job with Grace Town (Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart), an enigmatic transfer student who walks with a cane, wears baggy clothes, and shows little enthusiasm for the plum position she’s been offered. Henry is immediately intrigued by her, and they develop a dynamic that eventually becomes some kind of relationship.

Piecing together glimpses of her social media presence, the poetry he knows she likes, and what he’s imagined love to be, Henry falls for his own conception of Grace, struggling to reconcile it with what he learns about the clearly troubled girl as he slowly peels back more layers to her story. It’s a tendency worth deconstructing, though Chemical Hearts doesn’t do it very sharply, nor with much subtlety. (Henry’s favorite hobby is Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics. And regrettably, yes, Grace does yell at one point, “I’m not one of your f---ing vases, okay?”)

Films about teens but created by adults (as most films are, considering the resources and expertise required to make one) walk a fine line in portraying the teenage experience using — but never betraying — the perspective that comes with age. At best, these movies capture the essential tension of adolescence by expressing, through limited articulation, unlimited depth of feeling.

Alternatively, Chemical Hearts repeatedly attempts to explain the essential tension of adolescence as a sort of thesis statement snuck in there by its creators, like when Grace observes that the classic authors assigned in English class “can’t avoid the truth that being young is so painful, it’s almost, like, too much! To feel!” which sounds exactly like something an adult would say about teenagers because the young people themselves haven’t yet come to believe that it’s not being alive in general that’s too much. Isn’t that what’s so painful about it?

Reinhart (who also executive produced) is a perceptive actress with great presence, but the script too often corners her into a damaged-girl cliché. The continuous darkening of her trauma crosses into the gratuitous, building to a dramatic climax that would feel absurd were it not for her and Abrams’ commitment. He, too, has an easy appeal that makes him a good guide through the story, but despite both stars’ charisma, it’s hard to ever buy very much into their poorly drawn connection. The script (adapted from Sutherland’s book by Tanne) theorizes messy emotions into a series of neatly charted concepts, then relies on good actors to try to breathe some life into it. But it takes more than geometry and chemistry to build a beating heart. C

Chemical Hearts lands on Amazon Prime Video Aug. 21.

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