Grace is the mysterious new girl in school who limps along with a cane and nearly stole the school newspaper editing job right from the stranglehold position Henry’s been leveraging throughout his entire high school career. Of course he can’t resist her. She’s broken. He wants to fix her, in that grand tradition of teenage boys the world over. Haha, only kidding. Only books and movies think teenage boys lust after loner girls. In real life I’m pretty sure it’s the outgoing cheerleader types, the girls who do most of the work for them.
But then again, Henry (Austin Abrams) is not your typical leading man. Millennials redefined masculinity, and our leading men have reflected the change – think Adam Driver, Paul Dano, Domhnall Gleeson, Dev Patel, Robert Pattinson, Ezra Miller – men who have pushed back against the beer swilling, no feelings having, sexism propagating pigs Hollywood has excused for years. Millennial men ask for consent. They manscape. They try. They like your friends and meet your mother and declare their intentions on IG. Think of 21 Jump Street when Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum first meet Dave Franco’s character. Hill and Tatum are likely borderline millennials themselves, but in this movie, Franco engendered the new man: he cared. He held hands. He waited until you were ready. And now we have Henry, a Generation Z leading man – in fact, a Gen Z leading person, because Gen Z is progressive and inclusive and they know that gender’s a social construct and not tied to a binary system their grandparents were content to force themselves into. Gen Z is diverse and aware; they’re digital natives used to personalized content but not fond of labels. They’re also overwhelmed and lonely. They’re moving away from traditional notions of beauty (well, at least for men) – yesterday’s hunks were broad, buff, and weren’t content with just a 6 pack but had upgraded to an 8 pack. Gen Z’s leading men, like Tom Holland, Finn Wolfhard, and indeed Austin Abrams have leaner, rangier physiques. Even comparatively fit Noah Centineo was body-shamed on Insta for not having abs – though people were quick to come to his defense. Abrams has a mopey, droopy-haired, anemic look about him, handsome in a hurt kind of way, like Kurt Cobain if you’ll allow the reference to – ew – Generation X.
So maybe kids these days really are turned on by chicks with mobility issues and a preternatural affinity for disaffected solitude. At any rate, Henry cannot resist. He’s smitten. But Grace (Lili Reinhart) truly is the walking wounded, and she’s got more ghosts than a teenage boy, even a very sensitive, very vulnerable one, is equipped to deal with.
Even given that I am bad with titles, it still took me a minute to figure out that I’ve read this book, and fairly recently too. It’s a fairly forgettable work of YA and is equally forgettable as a film. Tragic teenage love stories are a well-worn genre and even if Gen Z’s cardigans are slim-cut and their haircuts gender neutral, their love stories still follow the tried and true emotional roller-coaster we’ve all been through. Young love is still young love. Abrams and Reinhart have as much chemistry as their hearts promised in the title. Director Richard Tanne takes the trauma of teenage heartbreak very seriously, as does everyone who’s ever had one. Maybe a little too seriously – the film is coated in apathy and despair, leaving little room for growth or agency or change. I don’t feel we get to know the characters very well, and I was disappointed Henry’s friends get such short shrift in the film compared to the novel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film, it just relies too heavily on all the old cliches and fails to stir up much beyond sympathy, which gets tiring after a while. Check out Chemical Hearts if you’re a fan of these actors, or are in need of a genre fix, but otherwise, this movie is missable.