Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Fathers & Daughters: Hearts Beat Loud

Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons in Hearts Beat Loud. (Photo: IMDB)

Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about a father-daughter relationship. Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) is a one-time rock guitarist who retired from music after the vocalist in his band – his wife – died in an accident. (A motorist hit her on her bike.) He opened a vinyl shop, called Red Hook Records after the name of their Brooklyn neighborhood; now he only plays for his own pleasure and with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who was a baby when her mother passed away. Their jam sessions are a tradition and a bond between them, and Frank insists on one more before she starts college – she’s been accepted to the pre-med program at UCLA. Sam has inherited her mother’s vocal chops, and it turns out she’s been writing songs, too. When he wheedles her into playing one, “Hearts Beat Loud,” in their home studio, backing her on guitar, he thinks it’s such a knockout that, on impulse, he puts it on Spotify. He’s right – it is a knockout, and so is Sam. And evidently he’s not the only person who thinks so, because Spotify includes it on an indie alt-rock playlist, and Frank hears it at his local coffee shop. Buoyed by the recognition, he wants to convince his daughter to put off university and tour with him. The name he gives them is We’re Not a Band, since that’s what Sam has kept insisting, reminding him that she’s got the next phrase of her life all set.

Frank is the movie’s protagonist, and his story is about his struggle with the end of Sam’s childhood, which throws him back on his lonely widowed self, on the grief over the loss of his wife, which he hasn’t so much come to terms with as buried in the distractions of being a single dad and running a shop – which has somehow held on for seventeen years but has never been exactly a cash cow and now is foundering worse than ever. He’s fallen for Leslie (Toni Collette), who owns the property he rents for his store, but she has other romantic interests and sees him as a good friend. Suddenly he decides he wants to close down Red Hook Records; what he wants is to play music again rather than sell it, and of course that need is all tied up with his wish for a musical partnership with Sam. That is, he wants time to stand still and he wants to move ahead to a new phase in his own life. Ted Danson plays his pal Dave, a genial stoner who runs the local bar and used to be an actor; Haley and his co-writer, Marc Basch, don’t overstate this idea, but it’s clear that Dave is a foil for Frank – a one-time artist who has come to terms with the professional compromise he made in his life and is quite enjoying it.

Sam’s coming-of-age narrative takes up a lot of the movie’s playing time as well. It’s about her music, yes, but it’s mostly a love story: she meets a young artist named Rose (Sasha Lane) and they click immediately. The problem is that this first serious romance falls into Sam’s life just at the wrong time, when she’s packing up to move three thousand miles away. The chance her father holds out for her to make music with him and put college on hold is linked to the chance to stick around and explore her relationship with Rose. (Haley and Basch’s screenplay is so understated that it’s easy to miss just how goddamn good it is.)

Sasha Lane and Kiersey Clemons. (Photo: PGN)

Nick Offerman is known for the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation, but he’s been stretching himself in movies lately: he was in last year’s uproarious The Little Hours (Chaucer done SNL style), and he and John Carroll Lynch did fine work behind Michael Keaton in The Founder as the men who started McDonald’s. (No one went to see either of these movies, more’s the pity.) He gives a remarkably sensitive performance in Hearts Beat Loud that doesn’t have an ounce of sentimentality in it – or, I’d say, a conventional moment. Haley and Basch have written him a few showpiece scenes, like the one where he gets drunk at Dave’s place and the one that follows, where, buoyed up by the liquor, he rings Leslie’s doorbell and confronts her about her boyfriend. And he shines in them. But he’s even better in the scenes where he lets us read Frank’s unspoken feelings – when he’s just watching her, or watching his daughter, and processing their behavior, which inevitably means facing his disappointments that their lives run in other directions. One of my favorite of Offerman’s moments is the one where Sam finally gets up the courage to tell him that Rose has taught her how to ride a bike, something she avoided her entire childhood because of her mother’s fatal accident: Frank doesn’t say anything – he certainly doesn’t indicate disapproval, which would be wildly out of character for him – but you can see in his face what this admission means to him: that he knows he can’t protect her anymore. Though Frank’s issues are very different (and less dire), the performance that Offerman’s made me think of was Billy Crudup’s as the father in Rudderless whose life goes off a cliff when he loses his son to a senseless act of campus violence: both actors give deeply affecting renditions of how a man’s life is defined by his role as a father without resorting to a single cliché. (The same can be said for the writers and directors of these two beautiful little movies: Rudderless was written by Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter and directed by the actor William H. Macy. My colleague Kevin Courrier wrote perceptively about it on this website.)

There’s one small error in the writing of Frank’s character, and it’s in the opening scene, where he’s enjoying a cigarette behind the counter of his shop when a customer nags at him for smoking in a public place. Frank answers that he’ll put out the butt if the customer buys something, and naturally the man, disgusted, walks out, which is fine with Frank. This is our first glimpse of him, and it’s misleading, since he’s not Rob Gordon, the character John Cusack played in High Fidelity, a snob who only wants to serve people who come up to his personal standards. I assume the filmmakers are planting the idea that Frank is fed up with running Red Hook Records, but without context that’s not how it comes across.

Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are fascinating together – and very moving. She’s the practical one, the one who points out when she thinks he’s being foolish about money; he explains to Les that the way he got through his wife’s death was by forming a little-kid relationship with Sam and “eventually she outgrew me.” But that’s an oversimplification. Frank’s gift as a father is that he’s let his daughter alone – let her grow in the ways her personality naturally leads her. And I think it’s fair to say that that includes her taking on an adult role in the household in certain ways: you can see how much it tickles him. He’s continually surprised and delighted by her – not just when her songwriting indicates how much her talent has expanded, but also when it tells him things about her. The second song she writes is called “Blink (One Million Miles)”; it takes some coaxing to get her to sing it for him, and when she does he gives her a long look and comments, “This is a love song.” Softly but insistently, he asks her, “Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a boyfriend?” When she owns up to her inchoate romance with Rose, he wants to know what it’s like for her. “It’s been great but also it’s not,” she replies, and when he asks for elaboration, she says patiently, logically, “It’s all in the song.” After all, no one knows better than he does what you can find out from a song. (The four lovely songs in Hearts Beat Loud as well as the incidental music were written by Keegan DeWitt.) When Clemons reads this line, she skates lightly on top of the emotion. Clemons, whose cocoa skin sets off enormous eyes, is a phenomenal find: an impassioned singer with a face as vibrant as that of a silent film star. She has perhaps the most expressive eyelids in movies: in her scenes with Sasha Lane, she gets at sexual curiosity and desire just by the way she lowers them.

When I reviewed Brett Haley’s first feature, I’ll See You in My Dreams, I said that his strength wasn’t his technique but his instinct for directing actors – not just for getting superb work out of them but also for working off their rhythms. Hearts Beat Loud is his third movie (his second, The Hero, was significant for the Sam Elliott star turn it framed), and his technique has become much more accomplished while his skill at shaping performances has been transformed into something like genius. Here’s one example among many. The night Frank closes Red Hook Records, he decides on a whim to stage a We’re Not a Band concert for whoever’s dropped in looking for eleventh-hour bargains; Les shows up, and so does Rose. Sam summons up the nerve to sing “Blink” with her girlfriend, who has never heard it before, standing right in front of her. Instead of training his camera solely on Sam and Frank, Haley lingers on Sasha Lane, catching all the gradations of feeling in Rose as she hears the secrets Sam hasn’t gotten around to sharing with her and perhaps couldn’t share with her in any other way. Haley illuminates all the actors in the movie in this way. (The cast is flawless, and, as an extra treat, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy – one of Frank’s heroes – has a cameo.) And there’s a special surprise: Blythe Danner appears as Frank’s mother, Marianne, a one-time singer herself (like the character she played so magnificently in I’ll See You in My Dreams). In one scene Marianne tells her granddaughter about the night she got her first nightclub gig and met her husband: Danner handles the memory as if it were stardust – get too close to it, speak the words too loudly, and it might drift away. You get the entire character in this one scene, which burns through the screen the way Tom Skerritt’s battle memory did in last year’s Lucky. These are the scenes that remind me why I cherish actors.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment