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Sundance Film Review: ‘Hearts Beat Loud’

In this light dramedy about a family band, actress-singer Kiersey Clemons proves she's the real deal

Brett Haley
Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, Toni Collette.

1 hour 37 minutes

“We’re not a band,” groans freshman medical student Sam (Kiersey Clemons) to her dad Frank (Nick Offerman) in Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud,” a friendly musical about an aging Red Hook hipster who needs to let go of his daughter, and his dreams of pop stardom. But Frank’s not giving up either one, at least not until Sam leaves Brooklyn for California at the summer’s end, though the flinty widower is considering abandoning everything else: the record store he’s owned for 17 years, his shoplifting mother (Blythe Danner) who must be put in a home, and the dignity that’s kept him from asking his landlady Leslie (Toni Collette) out on a date. Haley (“The Hero,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams”), and co-writer Marc Basch’s good-hearted goodbye to late-’90s alterna-culture is as pleasant and fleeting as sorbet on a hot day — or the feeling of being young and cool, a loss Frank mourns with every strum.

Sam’s mother died in a bike accident when she was a kid. Since then, the girl has raised her dad. He taught her to love classics like the Marx Brothers and Jeff Tweedy (who makes a cameo). She nags him about sticking to a budget and finding her birth certificate so she can enroll in college. They both enjoy thrift store tees and whoopie pies from the fancy coffee shop on their block, one of a dozen economic signs that the neighborhood he’s lived in for decades doesn’t belong to him anymore. In the opening scene, a millennial is so irritated by Frank’s gruff record-store-guy attitude that would have sold tons of merch in the grunge era, that the irritated customer goes outside, orders the album on Amazon, and brandishes the receipt.

Whenever we see Frank on the streets, he’s usually the oldest person in the shot. Yet, he dresses, moves, and acts like an immature kid. Sam has a deeper respect for his culture than most people her age, like the scenesters who’ve just taken over Frank’s best friend Dave’s dive bar because New York Magazine deemed it “the real Red Hook.” On nights when these anonymous twentysomethings feel like slumming, the sight of Dave (Ted Danson) behind the bar in a Hawaiian shirt might as well be an exotic animal at the zoo.

Leslie is wealthy enough she wants to help Frank remold his shop, maybe add a barista in the back or something. But Frank’s not sure he wants to hang on to the past at all. His mom was a singer, his wife was a singer, and he’s imagined himself a singer for almost half a century. Instead of clinging to hope, Sam’s devoting herself to a future that’s all mapped out, pouring over her books on clinical cardiac electrophysiology almost as a rebuke of her dad’s refusal to get a real career.

So, yes, Sam’s annoyed when Frank interrupts her homework clicking a staple remover like a castanet to badger her into jamming in their music room, him on guitar and her brainstorming big, lovely chords on the keyboard. You sense that Frank used to steer these sessions toward his affinity for folksy singer-songwriters. Lately, though, he’s realizing that his teen daughter should take the lead. She has the modern touch he lacks — and the astounding talent he might never have had. Like Dave, a failed actor who keeps his sole Broadway playbill framed behind the bar, Frank might merely be ordinary. He’s in that artistic limbo of being good enough to fantasize about success, but not so good that people have to care.

When Frank uploads one of their songs under the eye-roll-inducing name We’re Not a Band, which everyone else in the film thinks is brilliant, the track is a hit. Maybe he can piggyback onto Sam’s gifts and finally cut another album? (His last LP is so old, on the cover he’s wearing a skinny scarf.) He grabs a high schooler’s spiral notebook and begins to doodle their rock-star action plan, a strategy that includes coordinated outfits, “not too matchy-matchy,” but maybe in leather.

Frank’s not a monstrous stage dad. He claims he’s more invested in her future than his own, which Sam writes off as a lie, but Haley and Offerman seem to think he’s sincere. As Sam sings, Offerman beams with pride. It’s as pure a look of fatherly joy as anyone’s ever put on screen, and the delight feels doubled radiating through the crusty comedian’s gray beard. And when he plays Sam a song he wrote for her mother, Offerman reveals an expression audiences might have never seen him wear: vulnerability.

The dad and daughter seem to talk all the time, but not about anything intimate. When Sam falls for an artist named Rose (Sasha Lane), Frank only pieces it together from her song lyrics. “A love song for who?” he asks. “Whom,” she replies. She doesn’t answer — her pending cross-country move is a guillotine blade dangling over her relationship. Instead, she and her dad connect most purely in their music, building on each other’s beats while hanging out in their socks. Haley zooms in on their recording equipment and the digital sound waves look like a heart beat. The shot is on the forgivable side of overkill, but later, as Rose teaches Sam to climb back on a bike, the heavy emotional symbolism plunges off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Frank’s right that a voice like Sam’s shouldn’t rot away in a research lab. Clemons does her own singing, which over the three catchy songs by Keegan DeWitt builds from a soft purr to a full-throated wail. In comedies like “Dope” and “Neighbors 2,” Clemons has been a luminous presence who could bloom into a great grown-up actress. “Hearts Beat Loud” proves she’s the real deal. As for the film around her, Haley’s 21-drum solo salute to the passage of time is, like Frank, merely fine. But he admirably keeps his characters’ victories small and their losses familiar, making his movie a ballad everyone can hum to.

Sundance Film Review: 'Hearts Beat Loud'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres — closer), Jan. 19, 2018. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: A Park Pictures, Burn Later Prods. presentation of an HK Prods. production. Producers: Houston King, Sam Bisbee, Sam Slater. Co-producers: Amy Jarvela, Rowan Riley. Executive producers: Franklin Carson, Paul Bernon, David Bernon, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord, Theodora Dunlap, Danny Rifkin, Frank Brenner, Nick Offerman.

Crew: Director: Brett Haley. Screenwriters: Haley, Marc Basch. Camera (color): Eric Lin. Editor: Patrick Colman. Music: Keegan DeWitt.

With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, Toni Collette.

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