Hearts Beat Loud is the title of Brett Haley’s new film and also the title of a song that Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) and his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) write together in the film, a song that will find sudden if modest, success. Hearts Beat Loud has been promoted as a feel-good indie film, but that requires some qualifications. It’s not simply a nice, warm film, even if it is simple, nice and warm; there is pain and loss lurking beneath the surface, and a quiet, wistful battle being waged against impermanence.
Frank’s wife passed away a few years ago, and now Sam is leaving for school and his record store is closing. He is desperate to hold on to what little he has left and hopes music, and the potential success it might offer will keep him and Sam together. But things change, necessarily, and there’s some fear in letting go.
Music is the lifeblood of the film, with Keegan DeWitt supplying a wonderful backing score that evolves into full-blown and surprisingly catchy songs, impressively performed and recorded live on set by Offerman and Clemons. Frank and Sam, as such, are the heart of the film, as it’s their relationship, and their music, that drives the plot. Clemons, in particular, is able to carry the whole film with the power of her voice. Every scene that involves writing or creating music, a jam session or a live performance, is captivating thanks not only to the chemistry of the two stars but the genuine musical talent they share.
Haley’s strategy as director, it seems, is to merely get out of the way and let his actors work. That might be smart, but it’s also a limitation. While the soundtrack is strong enough to stand on its own, the movie lacks a visual identity and threatens to disappear into the indistinguishable sea of American independent cinema, replete with its typical camera coverage and random establishing shots tirelessly transitioning from one scene to the next. That is to say, it looks and moves like every other indie film you’ve seen, and quickly settles into the formula as if it couldn’t imagine any other way to tell a story. This is most evident in the subplots, which feature notable actors mostly going to waste. Blythe Danner has a couple sweet scenes, but her character adds little, and Ted Danson shows up as a bar owner just to chat with Frank about the film’s themes. Toni Collette is more directly involved in the story as Frank’s landlady, Leslie, but even that role feels largely perfunctory. Not that any of these subplots are bad, per se; the actors are all enjoyable in their roles.
And none of this is to say Hearts Beat Loud doesn’t have its moments. The most memorable subplot involves Rose (Sasha Lane), Sam’s girlfriend. At one point in the film, Rose suggests they bike down to Coney Island, only realizing her misstep a few seconds later: Sam never learned to ride because that is how her mother died (struck down as a cyclist on a New York street). But Sam is okay with the idea; it’s time, she says, that she learns. The scene begins with Frank, alone in his apartment, working on music and experimenting with looping and layering, before cutting to soundless images of Rose teaching Sam how to ride a bike. Frank’s music becomes the soundtrack for the scene, and the film cuts back and forth, layering the two plot threads with the music.
This creates a visual dialectic that expresses both the bond between Frank and Sam (the editing joins the two threads together) and the way they are necessarily growing apart (as they occupy different visual spaces), capturing the myriad of emotions at this narrative juncture. There is love, a family bond and the desire for things to stay the same; but there are also new bonds being formed, new love and a new path, and the necessity of change (learning to ride a bike as a metaphor for moving on is perhaps heavy-handed, but the film earns it). The music is both a bridge for Frank and Sam (a powerful source of their bond) and an elegy for their old lives, and the memory of their wife/mother (we later learn that the music Frank is writing is for a new song, “Everything Must Go,” which will be central to the third act). This is pretty much the only cinematic idea the movie has, but it’s a good one, and I will readily admit that my eyes began welling up during this scene. It is the emotional peak of the whole film.
Hearts Beat Loud explores emotions in simple, gentle ways. There are no violent outbursts or big dramatic moments (no actors screaming for awards season consideration). Things change, and characters watch them change, and sometimes they try to stop things from changing, even if they know they can’t. Hearts Beat Loud is about letting go, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sad film. There is impermanence but there is also beauty. As things change, there are opportunities: new people, new relationships, and new memories. By writing music, the characters are forging memories into something more permanent, codifying their feelings into song and transforming the totality of their experiences and being into art. Through music, there is catharsis; and, finally, the film becomes a celebration of life and love.
Hearts Beat Loud is uneven, overall, but it still works. The film’s ending is clumsy, a little haphazard and emotionally flat in the way it suddenly jumps around through time and locations (also, I’m as big an Animal Collective fan as they come, but I cringed all the way through that extended Merriweather Post Pavilion reference). But the emotional journey hits a lot of good notes, and the wistful tone is largely successful. Hearts Beat Loud bears witness to impermanence and change and honors heartbreak as well as joy. And it’s not every day that a story like this comes tumbling out of the American movie system with a main character who is not only a woman, but a black woman, and a gay black woman at that. Hearts Beat Loud is a simple film, gentle and quiet; and true to form, it’s quietly radical and progressive, too.