If your idea of parents and offspring playing music together begins and ends with The Partridge Family, you may change your tune when you see Hearts Beat Loud. In Brett Haley’s engaging, gently calibrated story, a middle-aged father and his teenage daughter bond over a shared love of songwriting and playing music together. It’s a simple scenario brought to life by nuanced performances and a light and easy directorial touch.
Haley is becoming renowned for his small, indie films (I’ll See You in My Dreams; The Hero) populated by life-sized characters who look and act like, you know, actual people. There’s nothing tricky about his presentation; his unassuming movies earn our affection with their humor and honesty. Hearts Beat Loud touches on serious themes—financial hardship, broken dreams, grief and loss—but the movie’s attitude is refreshingly buoyant.
In the Red Hook district of Brooklyn, Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) runs an obscure little storefront shop selling the vinyl records he loves. (One of the movie’s pleasures is spotting vintage album covers hung up in plastic sleeves on the walls of Frank’s shop.) His few customers are curiosity-seeking young hipsters who are gentrifying the neighborhood.
An outwardly crusty, bearlike man, with something a little nutty going on behind his eyes that suggests he’s got some scheme or other in mind, Frank used to play guitar in a rock band on the fringes of the club scene. But he gave it up for the (relative) stability of a shopkeeper when his daughter was born.
Daughter, Sam (vibrant Kiersey Clemons, so noticeable in a small part last year in The Only Living Boy in New York), is off to college in the fall to study pre-med. Business has not been great at the shop—the rent is way past due—and she’s looking for financial security for the future. No big deal is made of the fact that Sam is mixed-race, but it’s gradually revealed that her late mother was black and sang with Frank’s band.
Sam has showbiz in her blood from both sides, and while she tries to be the grown-up in the household, she’s vulnerable to her dad’s wheedling when he wants her to take a break and play music with him. Her instrument is the electric keyboard, augmented by her own powerhouse voice. When Frank learns she’s been noodling around with some songs of her own, he buys an electronic musical keypad to augment their sound. The exasperated Sam insists, “We’re not a band!” which Frank adopts as their new band name.
During the course of the summer, they compose songs and record them in Frank’s makeshift home studio. (After he secretly emails one out as a demo, he has an exuberant epiphany at the local coffeeshop when he hears their song playing on Spotify.) Meanwhile, Sam starts to fall in love with Rose (Sasha Lane, from last year’s American Honey), a young woman from the neighborhood with artistic ambitions. Lane and Clemons are easy and likable together, although the part of Rose is underwritten.
But the rest of the supporting cast has better luck. Toni Collette brings shading to the part of Frank’s sympathetic landlady who wants to give him every chance. Blythe Danner (Haley’s muse and star in I’ll See You in My Dreams) has a couple of droll scenes as Frank’s wayward mother. And it’s great to see Ted Danson behind a bar again as the proprietor of Frank’s favorite watering hole, a cheerful stoner who has never quite let go of the ’60s.
The story’s main conflict is set up between Frank’s rock ’n’ roll dream, so long delayed, and the nature of Sam’s future. But Haley’s understated approach suggests that no option is absolute, and enlightened compromise might be the best way forward in this thoughtful, entertaining film.
HEARTS BEAT LOUD
***(out of four)
With Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons and Ted Danson. Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch. Directed by Brett Haley. A Gunpowder & Sky release. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes.