Rating: 3 stars
Dreams — at least the waking kind — seem to hold a fascination for filmmaker Brett Haley, who explored the subject in his 2015 breakout “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” about the search for love, late in life. Dreams were also the subtext of last year’s “The Hero,” which featured Sam Elliott as a washed-up cowboy actor struggling to get by in a Hollywood that no longer cares about westerns. “Movies,” Elliott’s character opined laconically, “are other people’s dreams.”
The theme of longing fulfilled and denied again comes to the fore in “Hearts Beat Loud,” Haley’s third — and most deeply satisfying — feature collaboration with screenwriting partner Marc Basch. Reuniting the director with Nick Offerman, who played a supporting role in “The Hero,” and “Dreams” star Blythe Danner, the new movie centers on Frank (Offerman), a widower and former musician who is coming to terms with the decline of both his livelihood — represented by the struggling, vinyl-only record store that he runs in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood — and his mother (Danner). As the film opens, we watch the increasingly confused woman almost get arrested for shoplifting, as Frank is forced to confront whether it’s time to have Mom move in with him and his teenage daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons).
It’s father and daughter, not mother and son, whose relationship is the central driver of this charming and multilayered tale. Although Haley has previously demonstrated a gift for evoking the complex web of interpersonal, intergenerational connections that alternately bedevil and nourish us, “Hearts” zeroes in on the bittersweet nature of Frank’s special bond with Sam, who has inherited his love of, and affinity for, music. When the two, on a whim, spend a chunk of daddy-daughter time noodling on instruments and scribbling down lyrics, they manage — much to their own surprise — to write a half-decent song. This leads Frank to rekindle his aspirations of rock stardom, and Sam, who is preparing to begin pre-med studies at UCLA in the fall, to question whether she has the heart to crush her father’s dreams as she pursues her own.
Adding layers of nuance and emotion is a supporting cast that includes Toni Collette, as Frank’s landlord and is-she-or-isn’t-she love interest, and Sasha Lane, who plays a young artist who develops a crush on Sam. Lane, who made such an auspicious debut in 2016’s “American Honey,” brings a sensual warmth to this tale, transforming it from what might otherwise have been a conventional family drama into a touching, bittersweet tale of tentative first love, and letting go.
The heart, of course, and its yearning for human connection (whether though romance, family or friendship) is the true subject of “Hearts Beat Loud.” Using an eclectic array of music — both original tunes, written by Haley’s regular composer Keegan DeWitt, and performed by Offerman and Clemons, and a carefully curated soundtrack featuring snippets of pop songs by Jason Molina, Mitski and others — the movie articulates a point: Love is love.
That isn’t a big deal, but neither is this a big movie. In fact, its smallness is its strength — as is its silence. That’s the odd and evocative resonance of “Hearts Beat Loud.” For a movie that is so rock-and-roll, it turns out to be less about making noise than about listening to the message that can only be heard in the stillness that comes after the song.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some drug references and brief coarse language. 97 minutes.