Insufferably precious, drowning in quirk, and filled with an astounding amount of thematic mixed messages, Andrea Dorfman’s Canadian film Heartbeat, a tale of a wannabe musician overcoming her fears, is a painful thing to sit through. It’s too quirky to be taken as a serious effort looking into twenty-and-thirtysomething mailaise, and yet too rigidly and annoyingly constructed to be taken as anything other than a pie in the sky fantasy. Its idiosyncrasies aren’t cute and endearing; they’re meandering, cloying, annoying, and kind of backhandedly sexist.
Justine (Tanya Davis) is in so much of a depressed rut that she’s essentially becoming her deceased grandmother, right down to living in her house and wearing hopelessly outdated clothes and undergarments. She’s stuck in a copywriting job she hates, she still hooks up with an ex who wanted out a long time ago, her friends are having kids which means she can’t relate to them, and she wants to be a singer-songwriter, but she can’t perform in front of one person, let alone a crowd. Her world expands when she meets Ruby (Stephanie Clattenburg), a lesbian musical chick that likes to play the drums in the window of a local music shop, and the duo develop a friendship and attachment.
This is the hell that Miranda July hath wrought, but with only about a quarter of her talent and perceptiveness. Poorly shot, edited like a series of music videos that have a thin plot hanging it together, and leaving a talented cast adrift with dialogue that might as well be replaced by the cutest of birds warbling, Dorfman is actively trying to make the most gosh darn precious look at kooky liberal idealism ever committed to film, and the fact that its sickly sweetness revolves around a reprehensibly manipulative, dreadfully selfish, and thoroughly unlikable and weak willed heroine almost made me turn into a conservative. I almost can’t believe this was made by a female filmmaker.
It should be said that some folks are giving an effort where they can. Clattenburg is quite good as the only character that ever once comes across as a functional human being. Watching her try to ground the film and actively try to create a relationship with Justine gives the films its only watchable moments and the only distraction from Dorfman’s hipster fetishizing. It’s also hard to blame Davis for her character’s faults. It’s such a rigidly written and directed effort that there’s very little room for an actual personality to show through outside of the character.
I wish Davis had more of an opportunity to take the character into more likable or loathsome directions. As it stands, Dorfman posits Justine as someone who just does stuff; a free spirit with very little conscience. She comes across as a square peg trying to fit into the round hole around her, but the only thing the character ever learns is the power of selling out just to be loved and liked. It’s a horrid message to teach anyone, let alone the audience the film clearly aims itself towards. It’s a film about a self-styled iconoclast that’s actually about conformity for the sake of a better life. It doesn’t matter that the character is bisexual. That feels like an underhanded bit of manipulation designed to make the film seem more progressive than it actually is.
The film’s too much of a shrug to really be considered anything more than disaffected shoegazing, so there’s really no sense getting too worked up about how thematically screwed up the whole affair is. Dorfman cares more about shooting saran wrap covering a bowl in perfect lighting than she remotely cares about any of her characters’ thoughts, desires, and fears. It revolves entirely around music and production design without ever giving a damn about introducing a human element. It’s so self-centred and smug that it feels content just saying “aw shucks” at every turn when there’s some really dark stuff going on under the surface. This is cynical indie filmmaking where the filmmaker can’t recognize misanthropy. Not everything in this world is as happy as Dorfman seems to think it is, and it’s insulting to the audience to handle every story beat (even the more melancholy ones) as the cutest thing ever.
Sitting through Heartbeat was one of the most depressing and trying experiences I had in a theatre all year. I left sad for the people involved with it because a lot of time and effort was clearly put into making the film. Then I left the theatre and breathed a deep sigh of relief when I remembered that I never have to sit through or talk about this ever again.