Credit: courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
“A sweet, caring hug of a movie.”
Editorial Rating: 3 Stars
Baristas. Beard oil. Acoustic sessions. Obscure pastries. Brooklyn. Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud has no shortage of any of these. It is a sweet, caring hug of a movie. If you would like a nice time, and do not mind drowning in sweetness, you might enjoy it. If you find acoustic guitar soliloquies somewhat overrated, then you might want to spend your time some other way.
Haley’s film was supposedly crafted as a “response” to all the disgusting behavior coming out of the White House and other assorted American institutions — to his credit, the film bathes itself in the loveliest versions of American city life it can imagine, from an adorable record store to a biracial family to a deeply loving father-daughter dynamic to a healthy dose of LGBT positivity. These are all, don’t get me wrong, very good things, and especially in these times when calls for more diversity in the film world are met with pathetically backwards ignorance. Haley has done very well to color his film the way he has. Thankfully, Hearts Beat Loud does show more darkly realistic sides as well, for example: the record store, owned by father Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), is running out of money and time; Frank has had to raise his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) alone as his wife passed away in a bike accident years before; Sam is going to UCLA, on the other side of the country, which means her fledgling summer love is destined to come to an unfortunately early end. All these are solid plot points, yet despite them, the film just cannot quite graduate out of the sickly-sweet genre into genuine character drama at any point.
The plot follows Frank as he decides he has to close his store, Red Hook Records, in order to pay for Sam’s college. In a cute attempt to cheer himself and his daughter up, Frank drags Sam to their “jam sesh” room, where Sam plays a few lines from a song she wrote earlier that day. They record the song with their inexplicably state-of-the-art home studio (this, from a man who later claims to ‘not have a penny’ to his name), and Frank covertly uploads it to Spotify. It becomes an overnight sensation, and although Sam would rather go to college than be in a band with her dad, Frank is torn whether they should try and go for success in the industry or continue living their local lives.
Offerman and Clemons are the lifeblood of this film; without them it would truly have been an unremarkable experience. Offerman in particular taps into his talent for hilariously giddy facial expressions very well, and imbues Frank with serious charm and kindness. Clemons, after blowing us all away with her scene-stealing turn in Rick Famuyiwa’s mini-masterpiece Dope, is captivating as ever as Sam, particularly when she plays music and sings so darn well — mark my words, Clemons can seriously sing. Supporting them is a nice cast of characters with mostly nice performances; Blythe Danner is charming as Frank’s mischievous mother Marianne, Toni Collette and Ted Danson are fine as Frank’s adult friends, and Sasha Lane is alright but a little morose as Sam’s girlfriend Rose.
The hit song itself, titled, of course, “Hearts Beat Loud,” is a fun and catchy indie pop number that will probably get your toe tapping, and is genuinely well-written, but so like every other fun, catchy indie pop number that the effect is somewhat limited. Other than this track, however, the songs are either overwrought or twee as hell. One unintentionally funny scene comes when Frank tries to convince Sam they should play more music together by getting out his acoustic guitar and moaning out one of his old songs he wrote back in the day; the scene ends with Sam in tears at what a moving performance her father just gave, but, gosh, what a dull and unremarkable tune it was.
This is part of the issue with Hearts Beat Loud: it gives you nice feelings here and there, but a lot of the themes and plot beats are just not as ‘important’ as Haley seems to think they are. Take the way the script handles music itself: sure, artists like Mitski and Animal Collective are exceedingly talented musicians, but two scenes each featuring different characters describing how great they are is too much. Look at it this way: you know that feeling when someone describes a band to you that you don’t know all that well, and won’t stop telling you about them anyway? This film sounds like that, for 97 minutes. Couple that with an insufferable amount of Brooklyn-specific references and a pretty lame sense of humor, and that is the base of Hearts Beat Loud’s approach. (Side note: Haley seems to have inadvertently created a personification of what The Guardian called ‘The New Boring‘ – referring to perfectly harmless tunes and ‘beige pop’ tendencies that has taken over the music scene of the last few years – this is essentially the movie version.)
To be fair, there are moments that are compelling through and through. Offerman is on top form during the scene where he realizes the band has gone viral, the true comedic highlight of the film. The final performance has energy and style to spare. And yes, the central question of how Sam and Frank are going to handle their potential for transcendent music-making is quite interesting. (Although, it is a little insulting from time to time that the film seems to suggest Sam is considering not going to the medical school she has dreamed of since childhood to pursue playing indie pop with her dad instead … an infuriatingly stupid plot point that, if the film had ended a certain way, would have lowered this even farther in my regard.)
Overall, this is a forgettable film with some pleasant performances and a truly nice heart, for better or worse.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)
Go to Hearts Beat Loud at the EIFF