Brett Haley’s little film Hearts Beat Loud has been advertised in the trailers as “the feel good movie we need right now.” To be honest, I don’t know if we need it right now, but it is certainly enjoyable.
The greatest moment in the film happens in the very first scene. The character played by Nick Offerman smokes a cigarette and watches an internet video of Jeff Tweedy, of the band Wilco, performing live on 89.3 The Current.
Nick Offerman, who has made his name as Ron Swanson, the mustachioed libertarian grouch and no-nonsense manly man from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, always plays a specific character. This character is a flannel wearing, bearded, funny, and manly lumberjack type. In this film, he plays the best version of this character in some time. I was expecting Offerman, who plays a NYC record storeowner named Frank Fisher, to spend most of the film being hilarious and slyly dropping gut-punching one-liners, but he does not. His performance is thoughtful and tender, however.
Frank is a fairly sad and confused widower who is getting ready to part ways with the record store he has owned for seventeen years, as well as with his only daughter, a pre-med bound musician named Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who he has fathered for about as long. There is nothing remarkable about this film’s plot or even its character development. It could, in a sense, be described as the father-daughter version of John Carney’s great indie film, Once. It is certainly amusing and heart-warming to watch Frank bond with Dave, a pot-smoking bartender played by the loveable Ted Danson (yes, you read that correctly), and it is heart-rending to watch Frank grapple with his difficult emotions over saying goodbye to Sam, but there is nothing within the story that really gripped me and made me feel as if “I need this movie right now.”
There are two remarkable things that Hearts Beat Loud does quite well. First, Sam (another strong performance by Clemons) falls in love with an artist named Rose (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) in her final summer at home. Sam, who is not well acquainted with her feelings, isn’t sure how to tell her dad. When Frank finds out, it is merely an interesting fact to him. He does not dig deep. In a wonderful moment, with the smirk of a loving dad on his face, Frank asks Sam, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Even five years ago, Sam and Sasha’s relationship would have become the emotional focal point of the film. It would have been labeled as “queer coming-of-age cinema” and would have been promoted as such. Instead, Haley and co-screenwriter Marc Basch treat the subject with tenderness and reverence. Frank is a good dad. He doesn’t dwell on this important piece of Sam’s identity, but simply creates a safe space for her to be who she is without discussion. Sam is not a theory or political ideology. She’s a young woman ready to take a major step. Haley chooses to focus on Sam’s musical talent rather than her sexual orientation. Why? Her orientation doesn’t matter to the narrative of the film, plain and simple.
The second thing is the music. Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are both gifted musicians and sing and play catchy music with sincerity and emotional depth. The musical scenes don’t feel like a drama film interlaced with music videos. Like the best musical films, the music itself is a character in the story. The music they make (written by Keegan DeWitt) does what the best music does: it conveys the feelings that Frank and Sam cannot communicate through mundane speech.
Hearts Beat Loud plays to Offerman and Clemons’s strengths, but, on the list of great indie films about music, it probably won’t make your top ten. Sure, the tender scenes made me cry, and the musical numbers made me smile, but how many films are already doing that in our culture?