Life Unamplified

The small-scale satisfactions of Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud

Charles Taylor
Two girls lie facing each other
Sasha Lane and Kiersey Clemons in Hearts Beat Loud.

Early on in Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud, Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), a single dad whose record store in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn is on its last legs, tries to inveigle his teenage daughter Sam into their weekly jam session. Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is wrapped up in courses she’s taking to prepare for the UCLA pre-med program she’ll be entering at summer’s end. Her resistance to joining Frank may have something to do with her being an only child who’s about to leave home and is steeling herself for the break. But she’s not that resistant, and it doesn’t take long for her to give in to Frank–or for us to see that she doesn’t mind their music making at all.

Sam begins the session noodling around on the keyboard, settling on a riff she’s written. It catches Frank’s ear, and he tells her to play it again, as he gradually adds some guitar. It turns out Sam has written lyrics as well, good ones, and with a little encouragement she begins singing them. Before long both Sam and Frank are intent on finishing what they’ve started, and the session goes on through laying down basic tracks, using the computer to flesh out the backing, and finally coming up with something Frank thinks is good enough to submit to Spotify. (He does and they take it.)

This sequence feels like it goes on for twenty minutes, though it may be only fifteen, or even ten. At any of those lengths, it’s a substantial chunk of a ninety-seven-minute movie, and as far I was concerned I would have been happy for it go on for as long as Haley kept it in front of me.

The great French director Jacques Rivette, whose movies were routinely three or four or more hours long, was the master of taking his time, of allowing audiences to enter a movie and wade around in it, acclimating themselves to experiencing the pace of day-to-day life as it is lived. There’s a scene in Rivette’s Haut/bas/fragile in which the actress Laurence Côte comes home after a day at her library job, puts away the few groceries she’s bought, and stretches out on her bed to pet her cat and read a letter that’s just come in the mail from her mother. Nothing more happens, and yet it’s everything. The sequence conveys the satisfaction of being your own master after a day of being at someone else’s beck and call, the luxuriant ease of sinking back into the place you can call your own.

Haley isn’t working at Rivette’s level. In some ways he’s the most ordinary of moviemakers. But at a time when the rule for American movies is spectacle and fragmentation and incoherence, his approach feels sane. The seemingly unremarkable experience of showing an audience characters talking or just going about their lives may, given the current state of American movies, be something close to defiance. When we like the characters as much as we like Frank and Sam, it’s a luxury.

That long sequence of Frank and Sam coming up with their song is so casually done you could miss how carefully Haley has structured it. At first he sticks with the two as they add instrumentation or vocals. You get the sense of the song being built bit by bit, in something like the way it is in Jonathan Demme’s great video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss.” As in Demme’s video, the finished song is the point. And so after a while, while the completed song plays, Haley can resort to montage: Frank or Sam attending to some bit of music or just lazing around listening to a playback. What it all amounts to is a miniature version of the emotional arc of a movie about the tension between the harmony these two achieve when they play music and the pull to be separate.

It’s Sam who’s doing the pulling. The mop of dark hair hovering over Kiersey Clemons’s head is like a little cloud she carries around denoting her character’s gravity. Sam isn’t a grind or a killjoy. Her exchanges with Frank often reveal a sly sense of humor. But she has the status peculiar to only children: her relationship with her dad is as much a friendship as it is one between parent and child. So there’s something approaching equal footing even though the two are in very different places. At times Sam seems wholly defined by her seriousness. You’d expect this kid to take college courses before she gets to college, or to gently but firmly upbraid Frank for using his credit card to buy a sampler and a Les Paul for the band he insists the two of them should form. Part of the pleasure of the scenes between Sam and her girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane, with her dimpled smile softening her no-bullshit demeanor) is that when they’re together Sam gets to act like a kid. We watch the two of them mooching around Brooklyn or hanging out in Sam’s room or kissing. Sam never seems more like a kid than when she stays out so long she misses her curfew. (This modest movie shows a level of true sophistication in not feeling the need to address the fact that Sam has a girlfriend, or that she’s biracial and her father is white.) Clemons gives a lovely, clear-eyed performance. Every emotion she expresses radiates from her large, somber eyes. Sam loves her dad, but she also senses that she needs to make a break, to define herself away from him, which is why, though she clearly shares his taste for making music, she doesn’t give in to Frank’s daydreams about forming a band.

It’s Frank’s way of tweaking Sam that he takes one of her protestations–“We’re not a band,” she insists–as the name for the band he demands they form. Frank isn’t a fantasist or one of those middle-aged guys who embarrasses himself and everyone around him by pretending he’s young. He had a band with Sam’s mother, who was killed in a cycling accident when Sam was a little girl. (At one point, Frank visits the scene of the accident, now occupied by one of the ghostly white bicycles Brooklyn uses to mark a cyclist’s death.) Frank has responsibly kept his record store going for seventeen years. His decision to close it down isn’t just tied to the declining sales but to his instinct that if he doesn’t, if retail is his only connection to music, he’ll begin to sour on the art that has been the sustaining joy of his life. There’s a great moment when Sam comes into the store during Frank’s closing sale and tells him he can’t, just can’t, sell Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs LP for three measly bucks. She’s not wrong, but Frank knows that letting go is doing things that hurt.

One of the most likable things about Frank is that when it comes to music, he’s no purist. He’s thrilled about getting a sampler for Sam to play in their musical sessions. And he hasn’t shut himself off to contemporary music. At one point he sends his landlady Leslie (Toni Collette) home with a vinyl copy of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Nick Offerman’s scenes with Toni Collette, who must be one of the most believable presences in contemporary movies, bring out Frank’s charming and generous side. Offerman and Collette deftly skirt the flicker of romance that keeps rearing its head whenever Frank and Leslie are around each other. But Leslie can’t get past Frank’s conviction that it’s time for him to close up shop and move on. And as much as he tries to persuade Sam that the new future he’s looking for lies in her agreeing to make a serious go at a band, he knows in his gut that that’s a pipe dream.

Everything in Brett Haley’s movies, from the pleasures of friendship and love to the loss of careers and companions, is taken in stride. Haley gives us life unamplified.

Frank is the type of guy those of us who haunt record stores expect to encounter. With his flannel shirts and his salt-and-pepper beard he looks to be the perfect exponent of a style you could call middle-aged gruff. (When a customer objects to Frank lighting up a smoke Frank promises to snuff the butt if the guy buys something. Anyone who’s ever worked retail and dealt with the species of customer who thinks he or she has the right to tell you how to run your place will cheer at Frank’s swatting this little gnat.) But Frank isn’t a grouch. There’s a wry charm to him, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that Offerman’s performance has an almost delicate quality. As Offerman plays him, Frank is a big-hearted realist, whether he’s dealing with his elderly klepto mother (Blythe Danner, who, with her flowing gray hair and floaty, flowery tops, is the picture of the aging boho who’s stayed true to her style) or optimistically trying to book a club gig for himself and Sam. Hearts Beat Loud gets to you because as Frank faces the disappointments and compromises of middle age he’s also watching the daughter he adores at the age when everything is wide open for her. If Offerman had allowed Frank’s disappointment to take over, or hadn’t confined Frank’s surrender to bitterness to one scene in which he lets a night of drinking get the better of him, the character might seem to be a self-pitying turnoff. We’re with Frank, though, and Offerman captures the poignancy of Frank’s knowing just how well he and Sam fit together as a duo at the same time he knows it can’t last.

Everything in Brett Haley’s movies, from the pleasures of friendship and love to the loss of careers and companions, is taken in stride. Haley gives us life unamplified. There are no tragedies, just things to be gotten through. Haley makes unassuming pictures. He works on a small scale and doesn’t seem interested in taking formal risks. Which means he makes the type of pictures that critics feel free to dismiss or condescend to as quaint or not essentially cinematic. But in a year when the formal risks taken by good directors in interesting movies, like Lynne Ramsay in You Were Never Here and Paul Schrader in First Reformed, movies you can admire without warming to, feel hemmed in by their own pretensions, the satisfactions of Haley’s method outweigh the scale on which he works.

Haley clearly adores actors. A large part of the pleasure of his 2015 I’ll See You in My Dreams was the chance to see a great American actress, Blythe Danner, get her first starring movie role at age seventy-two. (He gives her a lovely monologue here in which she tells her granddaughter, once again, the story of how she met her husband.) Attempting to give that same focus to Sam Elliott in the 2017 The Hero, Haley got a fine performance from his lead, but the script wasn’t fleshed out, and you got a sense watching the movie of how Haley’s pictures might turn into warm, pleasant nothings. Though even there, in the scenes concerning Elliott’s relationship with a much younger stand-up comedian (a spiky Laura Prepon), you could see Haley’s refusal to make difficult characters cozy, or to pretend that the lives he’s showing us were going to proceed smoothly after the final fade-out.

Hearts Beat Loud is Haley’s most accomplished and consistent work. There’s none of the cutesy comedy that sporadically turned I’ll See You in My Dreams into a rerun of The Golden Girls. In Hearts Beat Loud, Haley establishes a mood of warm melancholy early on and doesn’t deviate from it. The year 2018 may end up providing more daring and substantial movies. But writing this halfway through, I haven’t seen anything I liked nearly as much. There’s a pleasure in watching a movie in which, even if the lives the characters are living are different from your own, you feel that the details are right. I believed the details of Blythe Danner’s settled upper-middle-class Californian life in I’ll See You in My Dreams, and I believed the details of Brooklyn life in Hearts Beat Loud. Because Red Hook isn’t serviced by the subway, it hasn’t gentrified as much as other sections of Brooklyn. I have to say I wondered how Frank could afford the large, ramshackle apartment he and Sam live in, but the presence of gourmet coffee and cheese shops hint at what’s happening in Red Hook, just as the funky neighborhood bar that’s Frank’s hangout suggests what’s in danger of passing. The owner of the bar is a former Broadway actor who’s satisfied to run his own place and score good dope, and he’s played by Ted Danson, in a procession of remarkable flowered shirts, as a kind of loopy guardian of both neighborhood character and Frank’s well-being. (It’s easy for stoners to see Danson’s character as a role model of how they want to look in their later years.)

For a filmmaker interested in making warm, accessible character studies, movies that send the audience out feeling good, Haley isn’t interested in rounding things off or smoothing over rough edges. If you sense the characters are going to be all right it’s because of their own inner resources, not because life has ceased to toss things in their way. Haley doesn’t deliver on Frank’s romance with Leslie, but he doesn’t shut it down either. And he suggests, in the sweetest way, that Sam’s career path may not be as straightforward as she thinks and will be richer because of it. In a way Haley makes this entire movie in the manner of Frank enticing Sam into that jam session. He knows that if he can get us to hang out and open up, there’ll always be another record to slap on the turntable, a song you’ve just gotta hear. Now. He’s awfully good company.

Charles Taylor is author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 70s.
Originally published:
October 1, 2018


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