If you’ve heard Brett Haley speak in person, it’s likely he won you over with his winsome personality. He’s a charming guy who comes across as someone who genuinely cares. His films reflect this sense of caring, as well, from I’ll See You in My Dreams, to last year’s The Hero, and now this year’s Hearts Beat Loud. Begrudging an artist compassionate sentimentality is like sneering at a basketful of kittens. Nobody wants to criticize a well-meaning filmmaker known for a generous and soul-soothing body of work.
The unfailing goodwill of Haley’s films is in turn bolstered by some genius-level casting, that often under-appreciated crucial ingredient, whether it’s helping pulls a bad script into “mediocre” or elevating workmanlike filmmaking to higher strata. Hearts Beat Loud pairs Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman as daughter and father Sam and Frank Fisher. He is the owner of a Red Hook record store, she a soon-to-be college student riding the pre-med track. Offerman is many things, but in most of his roles he doesn’t read as all that fatherly. He’s avuncular at best, curmudgeonly at worst, and often a contented oddball rather than someone you want caring for kids.
In Hearts Beat Loud, Frank is a good dad if what you want in a dad is a best friend who himself needs parenting. He’s no man-child, but there is some stubborn self-denial as he pushes Sam to live out his bygone dreams of rock ’n’ roll stardom. They have jam sessions together when Sam’s nose isn’t buried in textbooks, though a Fisher jam session is like an adorable hostage situation where the outcome is shockingly great pop music. (The film’s quartet of original tunes is legit.)
Hearts Beat Loud’s plot is tangled as the result of one such “jam sesh,” an energetically sincere number that Frank puts on Spotify without Sam’s knowledge and which becomes an instant hit. That should be good news, but it’s a catalyst for tension. How desperate is Frank’s midlife crisis that he’d pressure academically accomplished Sam to say “fuck it” to her future to play in a band (named We are Not a Band) with him? Add to this that Frank is crushing hard on his landlady, Leslie. (To be fair, you’d crush hard on your landlady, too, if she happened to be Toni Collette, especially after watching her nail an irresistibly playful karaoke rendition of Chairlift’s “Bruises.”)
Frank’s on the precipice of desolation: He’s about to lose the daughter he raised on his own following her mom’s death, his business is folding, the woman he loves is seeing someone else, hipster tourists are getting their artisanal fingerprints all over Red Hook, and nothing in his life turned out how he wanted it to. At least his best friend, Dave (Ted Danson), has a good weed dealer and a nose for top-notch tequila. Beyond that, the man’s prospects look grim.
But Haley isn’t a grim filmmaker, so Hearts Beat Loud maintains an air of cheer even in Frank’s darkest moments. (There’s an ugly scene about halfway through where Frank follows Leslie home, drunk and resentful, in a fit of gross male entitlement, but the effect doesn’t last.) Haley doesn’t let his characters suffer. He likes them too much. We do, too. This is especially the case with Sam. Clemons shines in the role. Offerman’s Frank basks in her glow, smiling with palpable joy when she belts out her hand-spun love songs.
Between his giddiness and radiance, they’re a jubilant, compelling duo, and Hearts Beat Loud thrums when they share the screen. At all other times, it’s a bit more mundane—Haley hits the beats of a timeworn drama blueprint without making the slightest deviation. As a showcase for its leads, it’s delightful. All it’s missing is a touch of honest-to-goodness gravity to keep the story anchored. Without that, none of the film’s turns for the worse end up sticking. There’s nothing wrong with cotton candy, and Hearts Beat Loud is good cotton candy, but bereft of stakes it’s all fluff and empty calories.
Director: Brett Haley
Writer: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Starring: Kiersey Clemons, Nick Offerman, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, Sasha Lane
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.