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‘Young Hearts’ can be broken

February 14, 2021
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There’s an urgency to the love between teenagers that is never really replicated in adulthood. The newness of it all – not just the specific relationships, but just love in general – makes everything feel outsized and overwrought. The knob is turned to 11 and then snapped off.

Often, when adults seek to evoke those early romances – particularly in YA or YA-adjacent fare – they succumb to the temptation to add variables to the equation. Sometimes, they go with elements of the supernatural. Other times, they introduce drastic health issues. However it is done, the intent is always to contribute more obstacles to the situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

So when you get a story that is just a sweet, simple story of young love, it almost feels daring.

That’s the new film “Young Hearts,” co-directed by Sarah and Zachary Ray Sherman from a screenplay penned by the former. It’s a sincere love story, devoid of high-concept flourishes; it’s just about the connections between teenagers and the ways in which those connections can change due to forces internal and external alike.

At its (very large) heart, this movie is about reminding us that high school romance is innocent, yes, but it also comes with its own difficulties. Dealing with those difficulties is part of the adolescent experience – an experience portrayed wonderfully here.

Harper (Anjini Taneja Axhar, “Papa”) is a teenager living in a Portland suburb with her parents and her older brother Adam (Alex Jarmon in his feature debut). She’s just started high school, but so far, things are going pretty well – she has some good friends and is generally happy, though she’s still navigating the social landscape.

Tilly (Quinn Liebling, TV’s “Everything Sucks!”) lives across the street. He and Adam have been best friends for years, while Harper has always just been tagging along. But when circumstances one day lead to Tilly and Harper hanging out together without Adam, the two find themselves getting along well. VERY well.

In the incredibly fast manner of high school relationships, Harper and Tilly become an item. Their interests are divergent – she plays basketball, he’s in the school play (it’s Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” a quote from which gave the film its original title “Thunderbolt in Mine Eye”) – but they’re still drawn to one another. They start spending more and more time together, but as they do that, they each begin to drift apart from their other friends and social circles. Harper’s friends don’t understand why she’s with Tilly and some unfortunate rumors start to spread. Tilly discovers that Adam resents his relationship with his sister and is far from supportive of the match.

The dissonance only grows as the days pass. Harper’s friends don’t care for Tilly and let her know in a hundred tiny ways. Tilly hears typical gross boy stuff about Harper from his crew and is insecure enough to start questioning himself. All of it starts to color the time that they spend together.

The external conflicts threaten the relationship even as it is just beginning to bloom, leaving both Harper and Tilly wondering what the right thing to do even is. Should they keep going? Should they break up? And how is all of this going to impact everything else in their lives, both at home and at school?

Again, “Young Hearts” works because of how beautifully, achingly simple it all is. The film is an elegant illustration of what it means to be a young person falling in love today, with all of the complications that come with modern romances, teen or otherwise. It’s a look back at that time in all of our lives when everything that happened felt earthshattering, where every little word or deed was packed with unspoken meaning and anything that happened was the most important thing that had ever happened.

The Sherman siblings have a firm grasp on that reality and recognize that there’s plenty of narrative power there. Rather than introduce some outside element to ratchet up the drama, the Shermans instead choose to focus on the simple complexities of young intimacy, offering up a relationship that evokes veracity with every awkward and occasionally cringey moment.

It’s a lot of small things that add up. There’s the preponderance of handheld shots, bringing a sense of slightly-skewed closeness to the proceedings. Having a laugh at the awkwardness that can come from the often-significant height differences between kids this age. Parents who struggle between wanting to be progressive and fear of being overpermissive. School plays and JV basketball. Parties packed with kids trying too hard to be cool. Like I said – it all adds up.

The young actors in this film carry a lot of the load, but they generally hold up well. Axhar practically glows with charm, amiable and awkward in equal measure. Liebling is the picture of teen gawkiness, giving every impression of a young man who is far from comfortable in his own skin. The two of them together are incredibly sweet, dabbling in the realm of grown-up behaviors while still very much remaining kids. Nowhere to be found are the preternaturally poised and articulate teens you often find in these types of films – these kids feel real, and the film is better for it.

But while the central pairing is key, it is the youngsters at the periphery that truly turn this into a world that feels genuine. Jarmon is dorky and goofy as Adam, doing a particularly good job of evoking the kind of hurt that teenaged boys are too embarrassed to show. Ayla Carda and Kelly Grace Richardson are lovely in their scenes as Harper’s friends, striking the balance of caring and cruel that marks so many teen girl relationships. And Tanner Orcutt is perfectly infuriating as Liam, capturing the exquisite jerkiness of a certain brand of teenager.

“Young Hearts” is a wonderful alternative to the sheaf of glossily produced YA romances produced in recent years. Anyone who remembers high school – or is still living it – will find a lot familiar about this story. A quirky, awkward celebration of young love.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 14 February 2021 13:54

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