Nick Offerman has carved out quite the niche over the past decade with variations of the earthy but deadpan Ron Swanson he played on television’s Parks and Recreation (2009-15). He’s cropped up in other works with supporting parts that borrowed Swanson’s tight-jawed demeanor to varying effect, from a cuckolded convent leader in The Little Hours (2017) to an earnest everyman father in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). These roles have given viewers slight glimpses into Offerman’s range, too infrequently allowing his stoic exterior to crack open.
In Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud, Offerman gets the opportunity to expand beyond his trademark mustachioed scowl, tackling a character written with greater depth and humanity than is typically afforded the performer. Here he’s Frank Fisher, a beat-down Brooklyn record-store owner whose bright light in his life is his whip-smart teenage daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons). She’s just finishing high school and heading across the country to college, and the film chronicles the all-too-quick hazy summer months between those major milestones for teenagers and their parents. For the widowed Frank, this time is especially angst-ridden: He’s closing his long-standing record shop; navigating the “friend zone” with his landlord love interest, Leslie (Toni Collette); and taking care of his kleptomaniac septuagenarian mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner).
This material comes off as particularly rote, and if it weren’t for the the central conceit of Frank and Sam galvanizing around their passion for music, the film might never transcend its lackadaisical Sundance-dramedy vibe. (It did, indeed, close the festival this year.) A one-off jam session between the ex-recording-artist father and gifted-songwriter daughter results in the titular tune. After Frank uploads it to Spotify, the two negotiate their relationship as both bandmates and as a family soon to be seperated.
Their band name, We Are Not a Band, almost works as a nod to the film’s low-key, almost nonexistent drama. Although Hearts Beat Loud depicts occasional sour notes between its players, the film is largely so saccharine sweet that its innocuousness borders on boring. This super-light touch isn’t anything new for director Brett Haley, collaborating again with co-writer Marc Basch after I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015) and The Hero (2017). Those films were about late-in-life characters reflecting backward, attempting to find a path forward long after their supposed peak. The gentility Haley brought to those previous work seemed to be borne from the characters’ soul-searching. Here, it instead reflects the all-too-cute facsimile of indie pop that the father-daughter duo create.
There’s still passion in the playing, though. Clemons is both exuberant and world-weary, imbuing her character with the self-sufficiency that comes from growing up with a single parent and the excitement and angst that an older teenager experiences when contemplating whether or not leave the nest. The depiction of her nascent queer identity is the freshest aspect of a film that mostly deals in clichés. There’s no coming-out scene, no pronunciation of her sexuality, no struggle between “traditional” heteronormative relationship models and her budding romance with a local young woman, Rose (Sasha Lane). When her father asks if she has a girlfriend, it’s as natural as the similar moments between straight characters in other films, a welcome change of pace from the specialization of LGBTQ+ films and the queer-baiting of major studios who still (save for this year’s Love, Simon) refuse to depict queer life, while allowing publicists to dish out stories about the supposed non-heterosexuality of characters like Lando Calrissian from Solo: A Star Wars Story.
The rest of the cast beyond Offerman and Clemons isn’t given much to work with here. Collette is dependably able to realize the struggle of Leslie’s friendly affection for Frank against his romantic advances, but it’s far from the acting showcase she gives in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Instead, she’s just the female figure on which Frank can project his hopes, similar to the stock characters played by Danner and Ted Danson as the wise-stoner bar owner. They’re cyphers as empty as the references to current indie-music acts like Mitski or Animal Collective throughout the film — they carry no weight or real meaning but attempt to lend credence to the proceedings.
The same could be said for the film’s climax, the first (and final) live performance of We Are Not a Band during the closing of Frank’s record store. Haley takes time to let the duo perform the entirety of their catalog. It’s only three songs, but by the time that moment arrives, Hearts Beat Loud has already felt like a bit of a slog, and therefore the climax lacks any forward propulsion or pathos that might have been present otherwise. Haley has proven his talent as a filmmaker before, and the prolonged overhead shot of Rose and Sam’s first kiss in this feature is a highlight, ratcheting up the tension with a slow zoom. Unfortunately, the rest of the film lacks the energy necessary to make it a particularly interesting outing.