High school romance skips the clichés

Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and Tilly (Quinn Liebling) share a schoolyard hug in Young Hearts.


By Richard Ades

“Meeting cute” is a common trope of romcoms. In the naturalistic teenage romance Young Hearts, the filmmakers prefer to have their protagonists meet awkward.

The flick centers on two Portland, Oregon, high schoolers: freshman Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and sophomore Tilly (Quinn Liebling). Even though they’ve been neighbors since childhood, they’ve never really talked until they run into each other one day on the way to school. Thanks to Sarah Sherman’s script and sensitive direction by Sherman and her brother, Zachary Ray Sherman, their dialogue captures the stop-and-start conversation of two kids eager to connect but unsure how to proceed.   

When they finally break out of their reticence, it’s due to the slimmest of coincidences: On a subsequent walk home, Harper eyes the fall foliage overhead and makes the offhand comment that she loves leaves. This gives Tilly the excuse to invite her to his room to view his own collection of dried leaves. Thus reassured that they have something in common, they soon surrender to their obvious attraction and fall into a relationship.

What might make the movie uncomfortable for some parents is that this relationship quickly becomes not only sexual but all-encompassing. Even when they’re not together, Harper and Tilly are making plans and sharing thoughts via texts. This would be a major commitment for adults, let alone kids who are aged 14 and 15, respectively. Aren’t they jumping the gun?

That question does come up, but only in a roundabout way. The filmmakers seem less interested in spinning a cautionary tale than they are in reflecting contemporary teenage attitudes and behaviors. They also seem eager to call out the threads of sexism that remain in effect even in a progressive community like Portland. Harper, for example, endures inuendo for being in an intimate relationship, while Tilly encounters friction only from Harper’s brother (Alex Jarmon), who was previously his best friend.

A key element of the film’s success is that the leads are portrayed likably and realistically by Azhar and Liebling. Though the characters have major backstories—Harper was given up for adoption by her Indian mother at age 3, and Tilly recently lost his own mom—it’s their present behavior that defines them the most. Harper is an outspoken feminist who talks about sexual politics on an early date, and Tilly is the kind of kid whose shyness probably makes the school’s drama club an appealing outlet.

Neither is a stereotypical teenager, any more than Young Hearts is a stereotypical high school flick. Instead, it’s a wise and warmhearted look at two youths who discover love and all its complications a few years ahead of schedule.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Young Hearts is available in select theaters and from VOD outlets beginning Feb. 12.