Director Brett Haley and his longtime co-writer Marc Basch make sweet music once again in “Hearts Beat Loud,” a beautifully low-key, heartfelt, small scale story of how music aids us in speaking our inner truth. Peppered with catchy original pop songs and sweet, affable performances from Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons, this bittersweet film is a true gem.
We meet single, widowed dad Frank (Offerman) as he’s preparing to send his only daughter Sam (Clemons) across the country to attend med school at UCLA. Frank runs a failing record store and after 17 years he is ready to close the doors. He and Sam share a love of music and after a jam session one night, Frank decides to form a band and submits their song to Spotify without his daughter’s knowledge. Of course the song becomes an instant indie hit, and what follows is a struggle between father and daughter.
Frank is desperate to realize his dream through his daughter (he wants her to put off college and become a rock star) while she longs to become a doctor. He thrives on the feeling of being young again and, as creative types are often prone to do, daydreams about their band becoming the next big thing. It’s a quiet story of loneliness, growing up, and the shifting roles of familial responsibility.
Offerman and Clemons have a genuine chemistry and bring a certain warmth to their characters, and both actors perform their own vocals and play their own instruments in the film. The pair effectively convey the joy of making music together and the bond between a dad and his daughter. These are satisfying, complex characters, but some viewers will wish for more background exposition. Much of the backstory isn’t revealed (I wanted to know more about the sweet end-of-summer romance between Sam and wannabe artist Rose (Sasha Lane) and the origins of the compelling relationship between Frank and his landlady (Toni Collette), for example) and if it is, it’s only in very brief glimpses of a life well lived. Haley is a director who thinks his audience is smart (one of the reasons I absolutely love his work), and he leaves a lot up to audience to draw from their own experiences and fill in the blanks.
The catchy and infectious pop hooks drive much of the narrative and propels the plot in ways that straight dialogue can’t, turning the joy of creating art into a deeply moving method of communication between a father and his daughter. The film relies on music to tell a story of its own, a small snippet of an intimate, personal life lived — the type of story Haley’s so good at conveying cinematically (“I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “The Hero”).
There are only a couple of mild missteps in this crowd-pleaser. Some of the music scenes feel overly long and there are a few too many extended jam sessions. There’s also a head-scratching subplot about Frank’s mom (Blythe Danner) who wanders in and out of the film only when her purpose suits the narrative.
“Hearts Beat Loud” is a heartfelt film about how music moves us all. In the end, Frank and Sam face facts and settle on a more realistic look at life. But for those few brief moments, along with the film’s charming characters, we are able to share in their visions of grandeur.