Brett Haley has spent the last few years carving out a niche for himself in the indie film market, and it could be aptly summed up as such. First, take an aging or forgotten Hollywood star whom the mainstream assumes is finished and write a specialty project with them in mind. Second, cast around them efficiently enough. Third, make said project cheaply and quickly in time for the winter/spring festivals (Sundance, SXSW) and fourth, profit.
With his new film, Hearts Beat Loud (yeah), Haley deviates from his formula pretty heavily: He’s cast Nick Offerman as his lead, transforming Ron Swanson into a dad rocker and failed rock star who gave up on his dreams after his wife’s death and opened a record store instead, and given a prominent role to the wonderful young actress Kiersey Clemons (Dope, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) as Offerman’s teenage daughter, who’s way smarter than him and is going to go off to Pre-Med across the country.
Of course they start a band — named We’re Not a Band, of course — and get somewhat popular; this is just how things go in these kinds of movies. Will they stay together? Who knows? It’s a remarkable admission of commercial defeat for Haley, who has always seemed proud to buck trends and do the genuinely uncool thing, and it’s a major, crushing disappointment, even if it is a lengthy ad for how listing your song on Spotify can lead to fame and fortune.
It really is a shame, too, given that he’s got Offerman and Clemons, and they have such a lovely and effervescent charm when they’re on together (and not forced to be at loggerheads for the convenience of screenwriting structure), and both are given interesting foils: His landlord, played by a swell Toni Collette, who may be falling in love with him even as she’s threatening to close down his store, and Clemons’ blossoming romance with an art student (Sasha Lane, who you’d know best from Andrea Arnold’s American Honey) that is sure to be doomed once she leaves Red Hook and goes off to UCLA.
To give Haley some credit here, it’s pretty fucking dope that he’s able to include someone of a different sexual orientation in this film and not have the whole thing become a conflict about that person’s right to exist. That kind of kindness is often mistaken for dramatic inertia, but he does a nice job just letting young love be young love without being gross or weird about it.
Still, Red Hook Records is on the line, and Offerman thinks his band might be able to prevent his daughter from leaving and might save his record store. Oh, yeah, that’s right: the movie is set in Brooklyn, but you wouldn’t know it, really, given that Haley wants the movie to be set a few tiny interiors and also wants to avoid the whole “gentrification” thing with as little verve as possible. Haley’s muse, Blythe Danner, makes an appearance as Offerman’s dementia-suffering mother, and Ted Danson is also on hand to tend the lead’s favorite bar and serve as a Wise Pot Man Who Helps (to be fair to Danson, he’s pretty funny and charming here, and if Haley goes back to his roots, I really hope he makes something for him).
It’s flatly photographed, but the few resonant shots (Offerman sitting next to a ghost bike on the street, clutching a notebook full of his old lyrics to his chest) do have enough weight to make them effective in the moment, though they’re sloughed off like dead skin on a foot on the way to the next plot point or gag.
Perhaps Hearts Beat Loud will work better on you than it did for me, especially if you’re into the kind of generic poppy tunes that Offerman and Clemons come up with (the film is soundtracked by Wild Cub member and frequent Haley collaborator Keegan DeWitt, but I can’t find specific credits for the songs themselves), but by the third or fourth time they played the song that gets We’re Not A Band famous, I wanted to scream bloody murder and run for the exits. This is probably the most Sundance-y Sundance movie that ever Sundanced, if you’re going on the Little Miss Sunshine twee indie scale that the festival became so known for, and it’ll probably be a big hit with the less jaded and cynical and easily bored.
Still, Heart Beats Loud epitomizes the cozy comforts of Dad Rock (even featuring a cameo by a man often mislabeled as one of the genre’s founders), and good lord is it a sleepy and miserable affair.
Nick Johnston is running amok at Sundance. Follow him @onlysaysficus. Featured ‘Lizzie’ image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.