‘Chemical Hearts’ Alternates Between Low-Key and a Cascade of Emotions

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Chemical Hearts (CREDIT: Cara Howe/Amazon Studios)

Starring: Austin Abrams, Lili Reinhart

Director: Richard Tanne

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for A Sex Scene, I Guess, But It’s Restrained Enough That It Really Should Be PG-13

Release Date: August 21, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

Oh, adolescence, when our lives really begin AND end. We don’t fully become who we truly are until we reach our teenage years, and adults are still basically teenagers who somehow managed to make it out of high school intact. Or so Chemical Hearts would have us believe. For all its talk of full-to-bursting emotionality, though, this movie is actually fairly low-key relative to other flicks about teens enduring love and trauma. It’s a young person’s film, with a young person’s sense of the world, but it keeps its head on straight and its feet planted securely.

The action starts out at the school newspaper and expands from there. A few minor conflicts are introduced, but they’re soon handled efficiently to everyone’s liking, and I certainly appreciate the maturity on display. But some potential mysteries linger for longer. Will they come to a head? Before we find out, we must first get to know Henry Page (Austin Abrams), who’s all set to be the editor of the paper and eager to learn about his new transfer classmate/colleague Grace Town (Lili Reinhart). She gets around with a cane and says little about her past, but she’s willing to let a friendship blossom as she and Henry walk to her house every day after school so that he can then use her car to drive himself home.

It’s no surprise that Henry and Page’s hearts gradually become bound up in each other. They initially bond over his attempts to sound like a cool literate soul (he mispronounces the last name of her favorite Chilean poet) and ultimately they just realize how much they support each other. But what is surprising, considering the genre and both lead characters’ penchants for overdramatization, is how understated their courtship plays out. There’s a sex scene at one point that is especially tender and sweet, focusing as it does on these two lovebirds doing their best to be present for each other.

If Chemical Hearts had ended right at that happy point without delving too much into Grace’s backstory, I think I would have been generally satisfied. But of course, it is impossible to completely avoid massive drama rearing its insistent head. It’s revealed along the way that Grace was in an accident and that she lost someone very close to her and has a rocky relationship with her mother. She lives with the post-traumatic stress that comes with all that in her own unique way, and as it may appear to Henry and some viewers, it feels real. This strain of practically operatic emotional pain isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but in this case, it at least doesn’t feel like the cosmos is cruelly toying with these young people. I’m not sure I buy Henry Page’s thesis that you’re never more alive than when you’re a teenager, but I can buy that his story is sufficiently worthy of my attention and my affection.

Chemical Hearts is Recommended If You Like: The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Five Feet Apart

Grade: 3 out of 5 School Papers

Scary Movie Reviews to Write in the Dark: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ Review

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In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Stella Nichols (Zoe Colletti) just needs to increase her speed and stamina a bit to make herself the perfect adversary to defeat a haunted book. She’s already a talented enough writer who knows how to get the truth out there. Anyway, on Halloween 1968, she and her friends stumble upon a tome in a creepy abandoned house that features macabre musings written in blood that come to life with deadly consequences. They’re penned from beyond by the deceased Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), who it turns out was abused by her own family after she attempted to reveal their dark secrets.

The underlying thematic schematic here is something to do with the unseemly secrets at the heart of America and how powerful folks often do their worst to keep inconvenient people quiet. That’s given resonant oomph by the Bellows’ black servant being the only thing close to a reliable witness and a time period that constantly places Tricky Dick Nixon’s presidential campaign on TVs in the background. The message is meaningful, but it perhaps could be synthesized more clearly. As for the monstrousness, the imagery is effective enough, what with a big white meatball creature that absorbs people and a massive swelling of the cheek that houses a swarm of spiders. I’m a little scared, and I’m motivated enough to say let’s get our skeletons out of the darkness.

I give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark 3 Bloody Letters out of 5 Jangly Men.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Brad’s Status’ is: Intensely Narcissistic

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CREDIT: Jonathan Wenk/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Shazi Raja, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson

Director: Mike White

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Disconcertingly Random F-Bombs

Release Date: September 15, 2017 (Limited)

Generally when writing a review, I avoid discussing issues of representation. That is not to say that that topic should not be avoided entirely, just that a review is not the ideal place for it. I believe that all stories are worth telling and need to be accepted on their own terms to truly understand them. But occasionally, representation is a focal theme in the stories that make it to the big screen, and in those cases, it would be imprudent to ignore it. Brad’s Status is one such movie.

In the most compelling possible interpretation, Brad’s Status is a horror film about extreme middle class neurosis. The score is filled with foreboding strings and heavy piano that contrast but also simultaneously complement the reliably blue skies. Brad Sloan’s (Ben Stiller) life probably should not be as intensely overwhelming as it is, but the status-conscious brain is a universe unto itself.

Brad’s existential crisis coincides with a college tour for his son Troy (Austin Abrams), who is smart enough to potentially get into Harvard but is uncertain enough about his future such that he doesn’t remember the correct date for his admissions interview. Staying on top of your kids during the college search is stressful enough, but on top of all that, Brad is deeply burdened by questions of how his success measures up with the rest of the world. When he thinks of his own college buddies he has lost touch with, he inevitably frets over how they have all exceeded him in terms of material wealth and influence. He remembers his own young adult idealism, and how his plans to change the world have not really borne fruit, even though he now runs his own nonprofit.

If this all sounds like White Straight Cisgender Male First World Problems: The Movie to you, it is worth noting that Brad’s privilege to complain as much as he does is called out quite searingly and clear-headedly by a female POC character. This is crucial, and effective. Those who are looking for more diverse representation in their films might reasonably say, “Sure, Brad’s Status takes white male bullshit to task, but it’s still about the white male bullshitter.” To which I would respond, I’m pretty sure this movie agrees with your sentiment and might in a weird way want you to dismiss it.

Regardless of how it works in terms of representation, Brad’s Status is an enlightening dramatization of the dangers of assumption, especially when you assume the best AND the worst. Chances are that your successful friends’ lives are not as picture-perfect as they seem. And chances are that they are not completely the opposite either. But you’ll never know either way unless you reach out and listen. Unfortunately for Brad, even when he does reach out, living inside his own head remains impossible to escape.

Brad’s Status is Recommended If You Like: Mad Men, Enlightened, White Male Navel Gazing, Criticism of White Male Navel Gazing

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Silver Flyer Cards