We all fear change, that inevitable pulsing current that can suddenly upend an entire life without any semblance of warning. For widower Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), change has been on the horizon for a while now. The Brooklyn record depot he owns and operates is going out of business, while his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is enrolled in a summer Pre-Med class before jetting off to UCLA for her first semester. The only real constants in his life are the bar "Sunny's" run by his old pal Dave (Ted Danson), and a crush on his landlady Leslie (Toni Collette) that Frank never really seems ready to act upon. By the time September rolls around, he's going to be out of work, broke, and without his best friend. It's not exactly looking up for Offerman's schlubby small business owner anytime soon.
However, Brett Haley's Hearts Beat Loud isn't some somber march to the sea, but rather a look at how a guy latches onto inspiration during the last days of life as he knows it. A sudden jam session with Sam leads the failed musician to record a song with his soulful seed, whose voice ends up catching the ears of everyone who'll listen once he uploads it to Spotify (in a sly, appropriate bit of narrative product placement). Soon, the local coffee shop has it humming in the background via an "indie mix", and Frank can't believe his ears. Before they can even pull his strawberry whoopie pies out of the display case, he's dashing home and begging Sam to record another song with him. But Sam doesn't have time for that. She's on the eve of a big exciting change herself and is even experiencing glimmers of first love with a local artist named Rose (Sasha Lane). This isn't the moment for starting a band with her dad in hopes of saving whatever dreams he has left inside his head.
Hearts Beat Loud moves a lot like a Richard Linklater picture, where most of the characters’ conflict is internal. Even when Sam puts up resistance against writing another song with her father, Frank doesn't freak or lash out. He accepts this as part of the evolution going on in his day-to-day existence. Sam's no longer his little girl, and he knows in his heart that he needs to accept that. Yet Frank also can't just let that beautiful voice and well of talent go to waste. Is this his fatherly instinct talking? Or is it selfishness, as he's afraid to face life alone, without his livelihood, stuck with only memories of the good times he had with both his kid and deceased wife? As much as Hearts Beat Loud becomes a movie about a father/daughter combo making music together, it's just as much (if not more) about a guy learning to let go and see what great unknowns the future still has for him. It's an existential hangout picture, complete with a pretty catchy pop soundtrack.
Thankfully, Haley's assembled a cast that's just a joy to spend time around for ninety-plus minutes. Offerman turns his usual grumpy lumberjack persona into a loveable, caring father figure, with these big blue eyes that always seem to be searching for any way out (or perhaps, any way to convince Sam to take off a year and stay with him). However, Clemons is the movie's real beauty (both literally and figuratively), belting out tunes about adolescent sexual confusion as she comes toe-to-toe with her own queerness, fully aware that the man who helped make her is still in the room the whole time. The chemistry she shares with Offerman is splendid during the recording scenes, and when Sam holds her own ground, there's a fierceness the young actress brings that also carries an air of mutual respect. She knows her dad's a good person, and is scared of losing her. But how does she reconcile that with her own desires?
Hearts Beat Loud is a featherweight dramatic endeavor, but floats along on charisma and attention to character details. It's only when the conflict becomes externalized – in the form of Frank drunkenly confronting Leslie about the nature of their relationship – that Haley’s movie starts to fall apart a bit in the back half. Nevertheless, by the time this new band – whose name is a bluntly clever play on Sam not wanting to be in a group with her dad – is performing in the record shop during its closing night, we can't help but get swept up in the rather nostalgic emotion of it all. Haley pulls off an impressive storytelling magic trick, in that he makes us long for these characters' pasts, while anticipating their uncertain paths forward. Though the end is rather predictable, we're happy to learn these life lessons all over again, because the folks enduring them could be our neighbors, all struggling to keep whatever songs they have playing in their heads alive.