An odd thing happened while I was watching the sweet, small-scale Hearts Beat Loud. Though I was enjoying myself, after about 20 minutes I realized I could stop watching at any time and be perfectly happy. I really didn’t care much what happened next (and I could predict a lot of it).
The mild, music-driven comedy-drama is the latest from director Brett Haley, whose writing partner is Marc Basch. Coming after I’ll See You in My Dreams and Hero, the filmmakers seem to be specializing in likable, disposable, middle-brow indies featuring middle-aged and older actors (like Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott), who probably appreciate the work in their late-stage careers.
Here the star is Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman as Frank, a onetime wannabe rocker who cut one album in his unlined youth but now works behind the counter at the vinyl shop he owns in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Once married to a bandmate who died in a biking accident over 10 years ago, he’s solo dad to Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a driven student spending her summer at a pre-med class in preparation for heading to her freshman year at UCLA in the fall. (We first meet her in class, answering questions about the human heart; Hearts Beat Loud has one of those scripts that hits its central imagery pretty hard.)
In the movie’s main novelty, conventional father/daughter, conservative/carefree roles are reversed. Frank pesters Sam in the evening, coercing her to put aside her studies for their nightly “jam sesh,” when they freeform on keyboard and guitar and try out new material. The name of Sam’s latest song, one of several pleasant-enough alt-pop tunes given plenty of screen time, supplies the movie with its title (there’s that imagery again). It’s a plus that Clemons is as charming an actor as she is a singer. On top of that, she’s beautiful — something an artist named Rose (Sasha Lane) doesn’t fail to notice, leading to a lesbian flirtation that’s as pleasant and perfectly safe as the rest of the movie.
There’s also a vaguely developed subplot concerning Frank’s mom (Danner), who seems to have a problem with shoplifting, or maybe she’s suffering early-onset dementia. The movie never decides whether to take the issue seriously or just leave it there as a bit of character “detail.” I’m not trying to sound snarky. Like I said, I enjoyed watching Hearts. It’s just so intent in coloring within the lines, it never once springs any sort of surprise or observation you don’t see coming.
The cast includes Cheers’s Ted Danson, behind the bar again as a saloon keeper whose preferred controlled substance is weed, and Toni Collette as Frank’s landlady, who doubles as his potential romantic interest. While it’s nice not to be freaked out by Collette, in the wake of her remarkable, disturbing performance in Hereditary, this movie doesn’t exactly give her a lot of notes to play.
One of her costars in Hereditary, Ann Dowd, turns up in another new film, Nancy, playing the passive-aggressive, Parkinsons-suffering mother of the title character (Andrea Riseborough). Mother and daughter live in too-close, symbiotic proximity in a squalid little house in a bleak, wintertime town somewhere up north. Nancy works as a temp, and she’s also a big liar. We know this when she shows her new colleagues photoshopped pics on her phone of her recent vacation, which she swears she made to North Korea. We also watch as she catfishes Jeb (John Leguizamo), a grieving man whose baby died only hours after birth. Online, Nancy calls herself Becca, a pregnant young woman offering sympathy, and when they meet in person, she tucks a fake baby bump under her shirt.
Is she a grifter? Or crazy? Or just desperate for connection? The latter seems to be the issue, and you can sort of sympathize, given the oppressive home life Nancy returns to every day. Then, things change quickly (too quickly, I felt). Nancy sees a local news segment, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the case of a five-year-old girl named Brooke who disappeared. The footage includes a computer rendering of what Brooke might look like now. And sure enough, staring at a printout of the photo and herself in the mirror, Nancy thinks, Wait a minute . . .
After all, Nancy’s birth certificate is missing. And her mother, unmarried, gave only vague description of the absent father Nancy never knew. So maybe . . . The movie shrewdly taps into that old fantasy many of us have as kids: I must have been stolen as an infant, because these creeps I’m living with can’t be my real parents.
Whatever the truth may be, she calls Brooke’s still-grieving parents — lit professor Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and psychologist Leo (Steve Buscemi) — and says she thinks she might be their daughter. The emotional Ellen, once she sees Nancy’s selfie, pulls the trigger and invites the young woman to visit them in their comfy country house. This is where the movie moves too quickly, I felt. Ellen’s unquestioning invitation, without contacting police or any of the investigators she and Leo have worked with for three decades, seems foolish. For a while, I wondered if catfisher Nancy was about to have the tables turned on her by a couple hardened against other fake Anastasias over the years.
But no, the movie settles into a quiet chamber drama, with Nancy, Leo and Ellen interacting for several days and nights at close quarters. Yet what should be psychologically compelling remains weirdly muted. Writer-director Christina Choe seems to be most interested in making us wonder what’s really going on here, less interested in whether or not we care about the results.
The problem is that Nancy, as played by Riseborough, is impossible to read. She’s almost too convincing in her emotional flatness. She’s completely opaque, so we’re never sure what game she’s playing, or if it’s a game, or if she’s just genuinely damaged — or, who knows, maybe she actually is the missing Brooke, all grown up and worn down. I imagine Riseborough is playing the role as Choe asked her to. But there’s one obstacle she really can’t overcome. Nancy’s hair is a bizarre, black-dyed haystack, a badly chosen wig that’s probably the worst design choice I’ve seen in a movie in a couple of years. Every time Nancy enters a room, it felt like the start of an SNL skit featuring a bizarre, cartoonish character.
The movie is heartfelt and always interesting, if never really convincing. If you find its central idea intriguing, let me direct you to a better movie, 2012’s The Imposter. It’s about a Spanish man who masquerades as the long-missing child of a Texas family, now 16. And they believe him, though he doesn’t look a thing like the missing kid; his eyes are even a different color. It’s insane. And it’s a documentary.
Hearts Beat Loud. With Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette. Directed and cowritten by Brett Haley. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, AMC Phipps Plaza, Springs Cinema & Taphouse.
Nancy. With Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, J. Smith-Cameron, Ann Dowd. Written and directed by Christina Choe. Unrated. 87 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.