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No matter how many different ways Nick Offerman says “jam sesh time” in “Hearts Beat Loud,” a melancholy dramedy from writer/director Brett Haley, it falls flat. The flat intonation and lethargic matter-of-factness that made Offerman’s Ron Swanson the wry backbone of “Parks & Recreation” feels too heavy for Frank Fisher, an aging hipster trying to salvage his record store and his relationship with his daughter. The premise screams comedy: Dad and daughter band finds unexpected success from their first single. While the songs are pretty, the movie’s tune is inexplicably mournful, sinking under the weight of Frank’s mid-life crisis. Despite a rockin’ premise and a stellar cast, “Hearts Beat Loud” never quite finds its rhythm.
Doing her best to bring the sunshine is Frank’s daughter, Sam, played by Kiersey Clemons, who burst onto the scene as a lovable tomboy in 2015’s “Dope.” The movie is set during Sam’s last summer home before college, and Frank seems baffled that he somehow raised a child who’d rather hit the medical books than the piano keys. That doesn’t stop him from doing his best “jam sesh time” dance and convincing her to slack off with dear old Dad for old times’ sake. When an all-night recording session turns out a killer single, Frank uploads the song to Spotify unbeknownst to Sam. Under the artist name, he puts the first thing she sneers at him when he asks what their band should be called: We’re Not a Band.
As the apathetic owner of a local Red Hook record store, Frank’s business is floundering. When goodwill from his supportive landlord, Leslie (Toni Collette), can’t save the store, he drowns his sorrows with the help of his bartender buddy, Dave (Ted Danson). Meanwhile, Sam embarks on a sweet summer romance with an artist named Rose (Sasha Lane). Though she’s secretive about her new fling around Frank, he first guesses she has a girlfriend, then tries boyfriend, proving it’s not so difficult to make a character incidentally queer. Sam may not tell Frank much, but he at least knows she swings both ways. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t make it a big deal.
Predictably, Frank encourages Sam to pour her teenage fluttering into her lyrics. Haley passes off clunky writing as clunky fathering when he advises: “When life hands you conundrums, you turn it into art.” At other times, Frank’s lines bear the sting of a thwarted Dad joke, as when he quips: “That might be my new Axe body spray scent, ‘Brothel.'” Eyeroll-worthy as he is, it’s hard to believe Sam would be so dismissive of her laid-back record store-owning father, whom Offerman plays with a hangdog appeal.
A sad pallor hangs over “Hearts Beat Loud,” from Frank’s impending bankruptcy to the bike accident that left him a single father. Nothing seems to go his way: He has an aging mother (Blythe Danner) whose mental health is deteriorating, he sabotages a budding romance with Leslie, and he’s not sure he can afford Sam’s college tuition. The collective weight of these worries does a lot to explain the delusional fervor with which he attacks his minor musical success, (the single lands on a Spotify-sponsored playlist), and why he encourages Sam to delay school and go on tour.
While that’s all well and good, it’s still a movie about a girl and her dad starting a band together. By all rights, it should be a heartwarming comedy with a few more tender moments. Instead, “Hearts Beat Loud” operates like a sad drama with a few moments that might make you smile. We knew punk was dead, but the comedy doesn’t have to be.
“Hearts Beat Loud” opens in theaters on Friday, June 8.