“Songwriting,” Dolly Parton once said, “is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts. Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. My head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”
That’s the emotional center of much of what sits at the center of Hearts Beat Loud, an earnest, charming, and achingly sad film with music from writer-director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Busch. It’s a good ache, though — the kind that sits hard on your heart because of the certainty that nearly everything beautiful ends. That’s the kind of ache that can build up inside a person until it feels like their head will explode, if they don’t get some of it out. It’s not enough to sustain a film from start to finish, but it’s a fine place for a story to live. This one lives there, and it’s likely to draw audiences into that place as well.
Frank (Nick Offerman) is a humble record store owner, disinterested in winning over customers, unbothered by their complaints, and ready to tell his landlord Leslie (Toni Collette) he’s throwing in the towel. He’s much happier at home with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who’s spending her last summer before college in a college prep course. It’s a loving but predictably contentious relationship — he’s goofy, she’s embarrassed; she’s withdrawn, he’s concerned — but that all drops away when it’s time to play some music. One such “jam sesh” goes a little further, as Sam unspools a scrap of a song she’s been working on since meeting Rose (Sasha Lane) in an art gallery. Together, Sam and Frank piece it together, adding layers, shaping and honing, until suddenly it’s a complete song, recorded and exported and whole. Frank puts it on Spotify, and things change — sort of.
Since a song sets the story in motion, it feels sensible to address the music first. Whether those watching fall in love with the songs or not will likely depend on personal taste — if indie pop isn’t your thing, Hearts Beat Loud is unlikely to suddenly make it your thing — but that’s less important than how they serve the story. The marvelous thing about Keegan DeWitt’s music is how organically it emerges. As played and sung by Offerman and Clemons — both eminently watchable, and Clemons in possession of a marvelous, penetrating voice — it’s easy to imagine that these songs are being written in the moment, emerging through introspection and honest sweat from the lives we watch on screen. Forget ‘easy to imagine,’ in fact. It’s tough to remember that it’s an illusion. And if nothing else, the titular song is, frankly, a banger.
The same can be said of the woman performing it, for Clemons’ performance is a subtle, warm wonder. As Sam navigates the tricky waters of preparing to say goodbye to a hometown, a parent, and a childhood, she also walks carefully down the path of young love, never rushing headlong but not moving fearfully, either. In Clemons’ hands, Sam moves slowly, as if to savor every moment, to examine it and commit to to memory, to make sure all its contradictions are understood. It’s not deliberate, but watchful, and the gaze goes both outward and in. Her scenes with Rose (Lane is also excellent) are enough to put a crack in the hardest heart.
If Sam is the film’s heart, and her love story its sweetest, sharpest pain, then Frank is its mind, a tangle of contradictions and confusion played deftly by Offerman. Haley and Busch’s screenplay presents Frank as a man toting around a heavy bag of grief to which he’s accustomed, even attached. As played by another actor, he might be stunted and reductive, another middle-aged white guy bitterly nursing the wounds that life has inflicted. Offerman, so often a figure of gruff warmth, takes a different approach. The film watches him reach for coping mechanisms and deflections left and right, making his way through the day by gravitating toward the things that bring him comfort. Sam is chief among them, music is another. So whenever the chance to combine the two arises, Offerman makes his choices look like survival instincts. It’s a sad and lovely performance.
That well of grief and oncoming loss that runs underneath the film is palpable, but simultaneously a bit shallow. It often seems as though Haley, aware of the goldmine he struck with these two, is prepared to get out of the way and let them tell the story. It’s an admirable choice, but at times, it’s not one that serves the film entirely well. There’s a little too much left unsaid, while suggestions of both the past and the future substitute for real development and storytelling. We see Frank sit next to a white “ghost bike,” a memorial to Sam’s mother, but Haley cuts away before we can experience the importance of that ritual. We sense a long history with bar owner Dave (Ted Danson, an underused delight), and are told how much that friendship matters, but not even two such revered members of television aristocracy can sell a friendship based solely on a few brief chats about weed.
The struggle to balance the desire for subtlety with giving viewers enough information to follow along is an issue that’s reflected elsewhere — namely, in a foggy timeline. That this film takes place primarily over the course of one summer is clear: when it begins, Sam is taking a class to get ready for school; when it ends, she’s putting what she learned into practice. Between that, everything else is a blur. The length of the relationships, the distance between major events, and especially the downfall of the record store is incredibly unclear. For a film so focused on personal history, it’s awfully unconcerned with the mechanics of time.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, though. That’s the beauty of a good pop song: It can be a little like time travel. A few opening strains and you’re transported back to that rainy summer day, that quiet night on the road, a first kiss or a last goodbye. With music to guide us, we can move back and forth in our own lives, opening up painful memories for the sake of art or finding strength in the words of a former flame. That’s a virtue of music, and of movies like Hearts Beat Loud: they’re fuel when you need them. They can make you brave, and as Dolly Parton said, “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”