Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart is brainy enigma in YA teen-savvy fantasy
Starring Lili Reinhart & Austin Abrams
Directed by Richard Tanne
Back in 2016, YA fans feasted on the debut novel by Aussie writer Krystal Sutherland, a kinda-love-story snapshot of two high schoolers whose quirky friendship turns to romance as their young brains surge with the complicated “chemistry” of attraction.
All those fervid readers are a prime audience for this new movie adaptation, which features leading performances from a couple of stars whose TV series are already hugely popular with young viewers.
Fans of HBO’s teen drama Euphoria will likely recognize Austin Abrams as the recurring character of Ethan Edwards—but here he’s Henry Page, looking forward at the very beginning of his senior year to one main thing: finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. That’s where he meets Grace, a new transfer student, who comes aboard as his associate editor.
Grace is played by Lili Reinhart, who rocks the part of “Southside Serpent” Betty Cooper on Riverdale, the hit CW series based on characters from the Archie comics. Reinhart, no stranger to movies, either, has already appeared in Hustlers, Charlie’s Angels, Miss Stevens and Galveston.
Henry’s intrigued by Grace, who limps and walks with an aluminum cane, wears baggy boys’ clothes and has a car, but doesn’t use it. “I don’t like to drive,” she says.
That ambulatory riddle is just one of the enigmas of Grace, and Henry’s intrigue quickly turns to infatuation, then to something more.
Director Richard Tanne, whose only previous feature was Southside With You (2016), about the first date of Barack Obama and his future First Lady, Michelle, also wrote the script, and his sensitive, tactile, teen-savvy approach to Sutherland’s novel—titled Our Chemical Hearts—brings the characters to screen life in a way that makes them seem real, honest and true to how teenagers really talk, act, think and behave. And Reinhart and Abrams, both under 23 at the time of filming, still looked young enough to easily pass for high-schoolers just shy of their diplomas.
Using Sutherland’s template of literate, dreamy, brainy, poetic romance, burnished with the modern technology of texting, social media and music, Tanne creates a movie mood that will feel like both an escapist, teen-crush fantasy, as well as a vibrantly recognizable reality, to many young adults—and even to many not-so-young adults.
“Meet me here at six?” Grace asks Henry one afternoon, standing in the middle of the suburban street in front of his house. “And bring a loaf of bread.”
Henry does, of course, and that turns into what could be considered their first kinda-date, a trek to an abandoned factory where Grace leads him deep inside, finally wading waist-deep into a long-abandoned water garden. There she feeds a school of multi-hued koi, then gazes up through a skylight into the stars above—and lays a bit of cosmic heaviness onto Henry.
“People are just the ashes of dead stars,” she muses. “We’re just a collection of atoms that come together for a brief period of time, then fall apart.”
Falling apart, and breaking, is a recurring theme in Chemical Hearts, from Henry’s hobby—breaking pottery, then putting it back together with gold lacquer—to Grace’s limp.
And of course, there’s breaking hearts.
Grace points out to Henry that many literary classics in their high school library—Romeo and Juliet, The Catcher in the Rye, Ordinary People—are about broken, misfit, awkward, “scarred kids.” Being a teenager is “so painful,” she says.
During one particularly painful moment for Henry, his big sister (Sarah Jones), a nurse who’s studying to be a neurosurgeon, tells him that love “is a chemical reaction,” and that the surge of chemicals that make us feel good, like dopamine, as well as the ones that make our hearts ache, “come and go.”
A lot of things come and go in the capably crafted Chemical Hearts, and they probably won’t be terribly surprising to viewers familiar with the YA movie genre, a diverse field that includes The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Spectacular Now. There’s a sensual, discretely handled sex scene; a Halloween party where a dejected Henry gets totally wasted, then lifted deliriously high out of his doldrums; a somewhat startling discovery; a dramatic, romantic, oh-so-meaningful kiss against the scenic backdrop of New Jersey’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge, followed by a montage of smooches in the school cafeteria, the library and the hall; and a cascading soundtrack of totally rad, contemporary Pandora-ready tunes by artists like The XX, MEDUZA, Tinashe, Perfume Genius, SYML, Black Marble and Sharon Van Etten.
I won’t give away any spoilers, but you’ll find out why Grace wears those baggy clothes, why she uses that cane, why she never invites Henry to come over to her place, why she doesn’t like to drive, and why the song “Take Care” by Beach House makes her sob.
You’ll find out there are scars of all kinds, and that love, like chemistry, can be complicated indeed. And you’ll discover why Chemical Hearts’ Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams are clear front runner for the year’s hottest YA couple—no, they probably won’t win any Oscars, but come the next MTV Awards, trust me, they’ll be shoo-ins for Kiss of the Year.
Available Aug. 21 on Amazon Prime