By Kirsten Coachman
Our high school years are often full of overwhelming emotional firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first unexpected loss. In writer-director Richard Tanne’s sophomore feature film “Chemical Hearts,” the moment high school senior Henry Page (Austin Abrams) briefly locks eyes with transfer student Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), he realizes that his world is about to be knocked off its axis. From awkward car rides with Beach House wafting through the speakers to sharing moments together, outside of editing the school newspaper, Grace begins to let her guard down with Henry, who can’t help but want to make her feel whole.
The film, based on Krystal Sutherland’s best-selling novel, “Our Chemical Hearts,” examines the complicated, hard-to-explain feelings that arise during our teenage years through the lens of Henry and Grace’s relationship.
Earlier this week, Art U News spoke with Reinhart, Abrams, and Tanne over Zoom to talk all things “Chemical Hearts,” including Reinhart’s decision to become an executive producer on the film, the cast’s natural chemistry on set, and Tanne’s nostalgic decision behind shooting the movie on 35mm film.
Gaining worldwide recognition as Betty Cooper on The CW’s “Riverdale” and 2019’s “Hustlers,” Reinhart flexes more than her acting chops in “Chemical Hearts,” as she adds the role of executive producer to her credits. As she explained during our Q&A, it’s a different kind of role for the actress and showcases her versatility in the film as the seemingly sullen teen who gets around with the use of a cane. Reinhart’s portrayal of grief following an insurmountable loss is nothing short of compelling.
What drew you to want to play Grace Town?
I really loved Grace’s darkness and vulnerability. I hadn’t yet been able to play a character who felt so raw and not put together. I really appreciated the fact that I could play the romantic lead as a woman in something that I wasn’t playing the stereotypical appealing, cute, funny, charming girl. The fact that she’s none of those things and yet attracts Henry is so interesting to me… and beautiful. And I just thought that playing a girl who was going through a grieving period and a period of heartache would be really interesting to play and a challenge for me, as well. And I’m always up for a challenge.
What was it about the book that made you want to take on a bigger role as executive producer and getting the film made?
The book was presented to me and I was asked, “Would you want to executive produce this?” So the opportunity came along very organically, but I wanted to executive produce because I felt that I wanted to make this book into a film, but I wanted the film to be very specific. I wanted it to not be too close to the book. I wanted it to be a little bit darker, a little bit [rawer], and a little bit more adult feeling—to kind of take it out of the young adult genre. I felt like, “Oh, okay, I should be an executive producer on this, because I want to make sure that my vision for this is portrayed.” I didn’t want to hand over a book to a studio and be like, “I want to make this,” and then have them make just kind of another teen film that’s maybe a little campy, a little cheesy. I wanted to do something that felt more grounded.
You have spoken a little bit about your emotional connection with Grace as a character and some of the experiences you went through and you noted that it wasn’t always easy to do—getting into her psyche. Was it more of an advantage or a challenge playing a role where you connect with the character as deeply as you did with Grace?
I think it was definitely an advantage. I think I have felt the grief, maybe not to the extent [Grace does], because the love of her life passed away, but I think we all feel grief when a relationship ends, and I think I could relate to the heartache and grief that she was going through.
I think it’s a challenge in a way to be playing a character that’s so emotional because it requires a lot of digging and kind of bringing up your own experiences into a role. I personally do that. Some actors don’t kind of bring their own experiences in, but I definitely do. And [it’s] challenging in that way, because you have to kind of sift through your own emotions and let yourself go to these deep vulnerable places.
How did you balance the different aspects of your character?
It was challenging because I knew I needed to play someone who was obviously going through such a hard time emotionally, but she also still had to be likable. That was a delicate balance. I remember writing in my script, “don’t be a b—h,” because it’s easy to play someone who’s sad and going through a lot. My automatic assumption is, “Oh, well, people are going to think she’s a b—h because she’s not warm and fuzzy,” but I don’t think she is. I really don’t. It was an active effort to make sure she didn’t come across that way.
I think she’s charming. And you can learn to care about her because you appreciate how vulnerable she is. And obviously how much she was able to love someone else. She’s truly experiencing the loss of someone. And I think nothing’s more beautiful than seeing someone’s pain because you can appreciate the level of love that they must have had for something that they lost.
Being that “Chemical Hearts” is a pretty emotional story, what was your experience like during filming?
Intense, but also in a great way. I truly loved filming this movie and it’s hard because I was playing this character that was so depressed and going through [this] awful emotional turmoil, but I was also having the best time. I was working with such a collaborative director and such an amazing co-star in Austin. And it was just really such a wonderful filming experience that I kind of lost myself. Even though it was emotional, I still somehow managed to have such a great time. And I think that just fully supports how wonderful and collaborative my team helping me make it was.
Could you relate to the idea of being in teenage limbo at that age?
Yeah. I didn’t have an easy time being a teenager. It was not fun for me. I had fallen into a deep depression when I was 16. And I felt like I was entirely in limbo because I was wanting so desperately to be an actress and to pursue this career. I knew what I wanted to do. I had such a passion for it. And on the other hand, I was still stuck in high school or still stuck in this world that I felt really wasn’t understanding of me.
I felt like the people at school around me, my peers didn’t really get it. They didn’t understand me. They just weren’t really on my level, in a way. My ambition was so high and so strong. And, to me, my teenage limbo was very much me feeling quite alone and confused as to whether or not I was following a path that I should be because I had chosen a hard career to get into. I think I had enough faith in myself that I pursued it and it happened.
But yeah, teenage limbo, you’re just trying to figure it out a very confusing time. Luckily, now there’s more resources for people who are more like me and struggling in high school. There [are] more resources, you know, YouTube, TED Talks to watch and books to read and celebrities and advocates to look up to that are speaking out about those things.
Do you have a favorite scene from the film?
People have asked me what the hardest scene was, but…oh god, a favorite? I don’t even know. I think I really enjoy where Henry says that he loves her for the first time where he says, “I’ve known all along that I’ve loved you,” and you can see kind of his desperation for her and his desperation for her to reciprocate. And it’s so hard to watch, but also so beautiful to watch and it feels very real and you’re almost like, oh, I can connect with that desperate part of you and of all of us that wants to be loved possibly by someone who doesn’t love us back.
And I think it’s such a beautiful and such a well-acted scene by Austin. We actually had to film that scene twice actually on two different days, because the first time we filmed it, the camera was completely out of focus the whole time. So, we had to literally film it twice, which sucked, but actually ended up being great because I think it was definitely better the second time. But poor Austin, I was like, damn, this is like, your scene, you’re so emotional, and he had to do it twice. But it’s still my favorite.
“Chemical Hearts” is the latest addition to Abrams’ growing list of impressive screen credits, including the role of Ethan on HBO’s “Euphoria.” As Henry, his interest in Grace is officially piqued when the new girl on campus initially declines their teacher’s offer to have both students edit the school newspaper. The chemistry between the Abrams and Reinhart is evident throughout the film as the relationship between their characters grows—but no more so than during a pivotal scene where Henry discovers an uncomfortable truth about Grace that sends him reeling. It’s sure to be a moment that audiences won’t soon forget.
How would you compare Henry to your previous roles?
Oh, geez. That’s a good question. That’s always a little bit hard to answer because every part is so different, as well as how you approach it. You’re just dealing with completely different directors and producers, you know, story and character-wise. That’s hard for me to give an exact answer in terms of how is it different. I am in this movie more than most other movies I’ve done in the past. That’s always really nice because you can collaborate with the director a bit more.
What do you enjoy most about playing teenage roles?
What do I most enjoy? I don’t know…maybe trying to experience those years. Everyone deals with all those things as they’re growing up differently. Being able to do the best I can, to see [things] through the eyes of the character, is the most interesting or enjoyable thing.
What coming of age movie cliches did you want to avoid in Henry’s scenes with Grace?
There is the whole manic pixie dream girl trope in movies a lot. I do think that exists a little bit here. When you first meet someone, a lot of times, you end up having a lot of ideas about them that aren’t necessarily real about who they are. It’s like a fantasy that can be created in your head. I definitely think there is that aspect, but I think we try to do it as honestly as possible. And I do think that Grace does call him out on it. I think that’s an element that’s there, but I suppose we tried to be conscious of it.
This movie obviously relies on the chemistry of the leading characters. I was wondering what kind of things did you and your co-stars do to form this sort of bond to make those scenes as real as possible?
I appreciate that. With Lili, we’d worked with each other when we were around 15 and then again at like 18, so there’s already [that] rapport there, so that was super helpful. But especially when it comes to C.J. [Hoff] and Kara [Young], my friends in the movie, a lot of times there’s just like a chemistry with whoever you’re working with, where it’s either there or it’s not. I think I was very lucky—and we’re all very lucky—that it was there. That’s something that I’m not really sure if it can be fabricated if it’s just not sort of naturally there. You can do your best, and maybe sometimes that works, but thankfully, with this situation, we all seem to have a sort of natural chemistry.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I am hoping with this [film] that at least a fair amount of people can relate to it, because Henry, in this movie, is going through a lot of emotions and dealing with a lot of things that I think like a lot of people do, especially in their teenage years, in terms of figuring out like how he deals with relationships and things—that obviously is huge in this movie. That’s definitely something that I could relate to, because I think that’s something that everyone needs to figure out, especially at that age. I’m also hoping that that’s something that will maybe help other people.
Following up 2016’s well-received “Southside With You,” Tanne took on the task of adapting Sutherland’s “Our Chemical Hearts” for the screen after receiving the book from Reinhart and responding to it. Those who have read the book are sure to notice certain differences, however, Tanne did a tremendous job of taking the emotionally heavy source material and identifying a story that would best serve the screen.
How did you initially get involved with the movie?
For this particular movie, Lili actually sent me the book. She’d seen my first movie and felt I might respond to the material. She was looking for a writer or director to kind of partner up with and turn this into a movie. The book really drew me in, and I always wanted to make a movie set in high school and explore my memories and feelings and impressions at the time. But I expected to do it with an original idea, something that I came up with rather than adapting a book. I’ve never adapted anything before. I’ve written a lot of screenplays, but I’ve never adapted a book. There were so many connections between my life and the things that happened in the book. It was an irresistible opportunity to tell my story through Krystal’s story.
What was it like adapting the book into a script?
I fear that my answer is going to be very uninteresting, but it was a very fluid, intuitive process. I connected very deeply to some of the fundamental concerns of the book, Grace’s sort of existential funk, her depression. Without knowing it at the time, I was up and down with depression, my entire time in high school. I only know that now, all these years later, having dealt with mental health in a real way. I related to Henry’s sensitivity. One of the things that I find interesting about the movie and the book is that you have two people in Henry and Grace who were dealing with different kinds of pain, different levels of pain.
And look, Henry is a pretty privileged guy. He has a good family. They seem to have money. He seems to come from a good background. He’s never really experienced true tragedy directly. And then you have Grace, who is in a very different situation and is encountering real loss and real pain. But in Henry’s reality, what he’s going through with Grace isn’t any less real, it’s just different. It’s just different relative to who he is. The same thing goes for the characters of La and Cora. Cora is dealing with her sexuality, coming to terms with it. The relationship that they have, even though it is a smaller part of the movie, it’s a kind of counter-narrative to the romance between Henry and Grace, which is very conflicted and toxic, whereas their romance is kind of carefree—perfect—from the time they get together.
I thought it was important to kind of access the pain and the anguish relative to these different types—even the sister is going through her own sort of coming of age in her thirties, dealing with heartbreak and what comes from that. So, I knew that I wanted the story of the movie to focus on those dynamics and those ideas and those themes. I felt that I had something to say about those themes and those ideas. It was this mix of my own impressions. I was the editor-in-chief of my school paper. I was in a very bad car accident that mirrored almost exactly what Grace and Dom went through some years later, but I was still much younger when it happened.
I had a similar dynamic [and] became very much in love with someone. And that feeling was not exactly returned—that rollercoaster. So I thought if I could take my feelings and impressions from that time and infuse Krystal’s characters and stories with that, I would know how to tell the story. And that’s what I did.
I read that you opted to shoot on film versus digital, and I was hoping you could talk a little about your decision behind that.
It’s funny because when I was writing [the film], I had this really pretentious idea that well, celluloid has to go through a chemical process in order to be what it wants to be, what it’s meant to be. So, this is a movie about chemical processes. There’s something to connect there, but actually what it really came down to was growing up, being a teenager in the early 2000s and being adolescent in the late ’90s, every movie that I saw about young people that affected me was shot on 35mm film. That is the look of my youth and my coming of age when I think about movies. So, I really wanted to appropriate that imperfect beauty, the grain, the surprise that comes along with having to photochemically reproduce an image. I felt that that, as cheesy as it sounds, really fit nicely with the Neruda poem and the idea of loving someone or appreciating or understanding somebody for their flaws and for who they actually are: to have that rawness and the look and the image, as well.
Given everything that’s going on right now, could you briefly explain the differences in releasing a film during the Covid-19 pandemic, as opposed to the typical film release? How different is the experience? And how have you adapted to the situation?
It’s a really interesting question. And I have been thinking about it a lot the last week. I’ve only made one other movie, but in the lead up to the release of that movie, myself and the lead actors were on a publicity tour around the country showing the movie and doing screenings and Q&As and obviously having a press junket that was in person. There was a sense that we were on the train that was leading towards release—that was destined towards release.
This is as if there’s like some movie that’s coming out that I know I had a part of and it’s going to happen somewhere, sometime, some way, but I don’t know when, I don’t know how, and it might just suddenly exist. I have to say, I kind of like it.
I mean, I wish it weren’t happening. I wish what was happening in the world [wasn’t] happening, but it has shown me the benefit of kind of detaching from the release of something that you’ve made a little bit. I really haven’t been thinking too much about it except doing the interviews that we’ve had to do. And I say that with gratitude because I think I’d probably be very anxious if I was thinking about [it]. I was very anxious the last time around. I’ve just been focused on other things and writing, and that sense of detachment has let me focus on other things, which is kind of nice.
What is the main message of “Chemical Hearts” to you? And if there was only one thing that the audience could take away from this movie, what would you want it to be?
So, you had to go and ask me the hardest question imaginable. I’ll preface the answer by saying that I didn’t go into it—adapting the book and then making it—thinking about what the message would be. Because when I’m doing something like this, I’m following an intuition, I’m following an instinct that I was able to latch onto. Regardless of what you thought about the movie, I knew that, for me, I could get in, I could access it.
There were enough connections to be made between my own life and my own experiences. And it meant something to me. So that feeling is something that I’m following as I make the movie, that feeling of melancholy and sort of coming of age and crossing the threshold from adolescence into adulthood, through pain and loss and heartbreak.
I related to that, and I wanted to bottle that up. Everything that I did was driven by trying to create that and create a sense of truth about that, for better or for worse.
But having said that what a lot of people have been taking away from the movie, and I think what I ultimately take away from it is that not every romance is supposed to be a love story. I don’t think of this as a love story. I think this is a failed love story. It’s a failure, because it’s two people who want each other for the wrong reasons. And who knows if Grace and Henry, at a different time in their lives might have been able to make a go of it, but they wanted it for the wrong reasons at that stage in their lives. And it didn’t work out, but it doesn’t make the relationship any less meaningful than some future relationship that they’ll have, which will work out. In fact, it shapes who they are going into the next relationship. And I thought it was important to tell a story about failing and having loss and still being able to pick up the pieces and move on afterward.
“Chemical Hearts” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
The Q&As have been edited for length and clarity.