Timing is everything, as we learn in Brett Haley’s HEARTS BEAT LOUD, an irresistible, perfectly balanced comedy-drama about love, loss, and that old truism about the only constant that we can count on is change. It’s also Nick Offerman being given the range and depth in a script that allows for revelatory nuance and vulnerability. Kudos to him, and to Haley for seeing the potential and serving it up to us in a film that refuses to be simplistic.
Offerman is Frank Fisher, a good musician who has channeled his lack of success as a performer, and his grief at the death of his wife a dozen years ago, into Red Hook Records, a Brooklyn shop devoted to good music on vinyl. After 17 years, Frank is facing two more losses. His daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is moving to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming doctor, and his record store is closing. The latter is no surprise, given how grumpy Frank is with the dwindling clientele. The former is more along the lines of the unexpected. Sam is the daughter and granddaughter of musicians, and a talented singer/songwriter, as her weekly jam sessions with Dad prove, but her idea of fun is found in spending her summer studying the physiology of the human heart. Yeah, it’s metaphor, but one that becomes a deftly bittersweet trope throughout
Frank and Sam’s latest jam session produces the title song of the film, and one that is as subtle and multilayered. Sam shrugs it off, but Frank decides to run with it, putting it on Spotify, and using its modest success there as an argument for Sam to pursue her music, even if it means taking a year away from school. The give and take between father and daughter provides the backbone of the film, with the father being the dreamer willing to bet both their futures on a not-so-sure thing, and the daughter taking the more sober view. No moment sums it up better, or more tidily, than when Sam gently but firmly corrects her father’s grammar as he is trying to convince her about something, and he corrects himself without a trace of rancor.
The tension of competing dreams, the palpable affection they have for each other, and the indisputable desire for the other’s happiness makes for a film that is heartbreaking and oddly joyful at the same time. Their conversations are steeped in subtext about what the words actually mean, and seem to echo conversations past. Credit Kiersey for finding the heart being torn by Sam’s devotion to her father and for her passion for music, medicine, and Rose (Sasha Lane), the artist for whom Sam has fallen, and with whom she knows there is no future. Credit Offerman even more, with the tempered hopefulness he gives Frank as he cajoles Sam, as well as the wounded gentleness that lurks in his eyes even as the rest of his body language and self-deprecating barbs present a more assertive persona when dealing with the rest of the world. Especially, Leslie (Toni Collette), his landlady who sends mixed signals about just how she feels about Frank, professionally and personally.
Rounding out Frank’s disheveled life, and providing the rich backdrop of quotidienne life, are his occasionally discombobulated mother (Blythe Danner), prickly in the face of her impending loss of independence, and his best friend Dave (Ted Danson), the quondam Broadway actor turned pot-enhanced philosopher/bar owner (yes, inside joke) who provides a sounding board and sometimes a sip of something from the top shelf.
HEARTS BEAT LOUD moves episodically through Frank and Sam’s final summer together before she is scheduled to leave for Los Angeles, but there is nothing disjointed here as the characters meditate on the past that is keeping them in stasis, and the future on whose consequences they can’t rely. It also asks us to consider larger questions, such as the meaning of success in a world there talent won’t always win out, and the discomfort of there not being just one right answer to any given question in that world. Life may be tough at time for our heroes, but despair can never quite gain a purchase among them as they move forward by savoring what is good in the here and now.