NEW YORK (CNS) — Much like the early-’90s R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts,” the somber drama “Chemical Hearts” (Amazon) aims to send young people the message that being a teenager is an experience that can be survived and a condition from which recovery is possible.
Unfortunately, the film is morally sabotaged by the inclusion of material totally unsuitable for any but grown-ups. This effectively serves to nullify its potential value to what is presumably its target audience.
Sensitive, but slightly bored with his uneventful life, suburban New Jersey high school senior Henry Page (Austin Abrams) finds his world rocked by the arrival of a mysterious new classmate, Grace Town (Lili Reinhart). Both are aspiring writers — Grace carries a volume of verse by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda around in her pocket — and they meet as members of the school’s newspaper staff.
Despite her stern initial reticence, we eventually learn that Grace has transferred in the wake of a tragic car accident that cost the life of her boyfriend and left her both physically and emotionally scarred. A former track athlete, she now needs a cane to help her walk, and she’s plagued both by bereavement and by survivor’s guilt.
Henry thus finds himself in the unenviable position of competing with a dead rival. Grace, for her part, resents any attempt by Henry to provide her with spiritual support, choosing to see his desire to do so as an intention to “fix” her. (Somewhat too aptly, Henry practices the esoteric hobby of Kintsugi, a Japanese art form involving the aesthetically pleasing repair of broken pottery.)
Writer-director Richard Tanne’s adaptation of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts” can be credited with tackling significant topics, including grief, the varied travails of adolescence and, implicitly, the temptation to suicide. And it’s only partially undermined artistically by high-blown rhetoric that falls flat — and by an excess of angst.
But Tanne takes us into the bedroom, where Henry loses his virginity to the more experienced Grace. He also charts the on-again-off-again gay romance between one of Henry’s two best friends, La (Kara Young), and their fellow student, Cora (Coral Pena). When Henry smokes pot at a party, moreover, he behaves sloppily but the underlying tone suggests it’s all in good fun.
It’s a shame that more restraint wasn’t shown in making a movie that, for all its flaws, might have touched and encouraged youthful viewers. But their fitting home is not where these “Hearts” are.
The film contains brief semi-graphic underage sexual activity, contraception, a benign view of drug use and of an incidental lesbian relationship, same-sex kissing, mature references, including to pornography, a couple of profanities and considerable rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.