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Review: Teenage love taken seriously in 'Chemical Hearts'

Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams star in mature teen love story, streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The chemistry in the honest and sincere teenage romance "Chemical Hearts" — both between its leads and in writer-director Richard Tanne's screenplay — elevates it above typical high school fluff. 

This is a film that takes matters of romance, depression, sex and death head on, and with a sense of frankness that most of its contemporaries do not. There's a real soul at the center of "Chemical Hearts," and while it occasionally veers into melodramatic territory, its head and its heart are in the right place. 

Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams in "Chemical Hearts."

Austin Abrams, who gives off young Andrew McCarthy vibes, plays Henry, a quiet, sensitive-type entering his senior year at a New Jersey high school. He's vying to be the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, but winds up competing for the title with a new transfer student, Grace ("Riverdale's" Lili Reinhart), an even quieter-type who walks with a cane and is nursing a mysterious limp. 

The source of that limp is revealed in due time, as is Grace's insistence on walking everywhere she goes and her refusal to drive. The plotting is parsed out slowly and on Grace's timetable: we as viewers learn in due time, when she is ready to share. 

It's a sometimes tedious timeline, but where "Chemical Hearts" excels is in its handling of Henry and Grace's relationship, from Henry's puppy dog willingness to follow Grace wherever she goes to Grace's command of his attention.

Teen movie hook-ups are often treated too lightly or too dramatically, but here it feels real: complex, complicated and anxious, but also joyous and celebratory. It's the wild cocktail of emotions and rushing hormones that make being a teenager difficult yet exhilarating, and "Chemical Hearts" spells out the strange feeling of being indestructible and intensely vulnerable all at once. 

Writer-director Tanne's previous film was "Southside With You," which told the story of Barack and Michelle Obama's first date with simplicity and grace. He didn't go sappy or over-the-top there and he doesn't here, instead treating his characters with humility and candor. They don't feel like stand-ins for everyday teens, they feel like real, unique, living, breathing teenagers. 

The title "Chemical Hearts" comes from the film's repeating theme of the scientific makeup of the teenage brain, and how it's exploding and changing so rapidly. The film's strength is the way it respectfully handles that transitional period and the strange chemical makeup of the teenage experience. 

'Chemical Hearts'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for language, sexuality and teen drug use

Running time: 93 minutes

On Amazon Prime Video

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama