Updated: Sep 24
There’s always been an extensive debate about just how many basic plots and stories there are to be told. But the older you get, the more you recognize great works of art transcend those basic plot bones and build some wonderful moving bodies of heart, despair, compassion, and triumph. And with any year of cinema, it’s easy to feel the pulse of various current climates and interests. This usually results in movies that come in pairs: 1989’s K-9 and Turner and Hooch, 1998’s Antz and A Bug’s Life, and 2006’s The Illusionist and The Prestige just to name a few. Now, I’m not looking to explore just why movies about cop/dog duos, insects, or magicians were super appealing to studios at those given times of pre-production (although that sounds extremely intriguing). What I do want to explore, however, is the influx of films this summer exploring the complicated and loving relationship between fathers and daughters, and even more specifically, how they bond when the mother is no longer in the picture. I’m so happy to have experienced a summer of film that praised strong young women and their supportive, empathetic fathers.
Things are about to get personal. My parents got divorced when I was 11 years old and from that point forward I was raised by a single mother. My father was in and out for the next few years before he was out for good (because, frankly, he is no good). While I was 11 when the divorce took place, my brother was eight, and my two sisters were six and three. I grew up with the mentality: “Go, Mom, Go!” Personally speaking, I don’t know what it would have felt like to have a strong father figure present as a young child, and my youngest sister all but grew up without a father entirely. My uncles and grandfather were fine examples, but my family made a post-divorce choice to stay in the rural southeastern Indiana town we had already made home instead of moving back to the Cincinnati homestead, leaving those male role models an hour away. I also had many friends who had loving fathers, but again, that’s just not the same. What is the same, however, is recognizing just how difficult it is to be a single parent no matter what gender. So when I watched Hearts Beat Loud, I thought, “Man, what a great dad, who’s super cool in both his acceptance of the young woman he’s raised, and his musicality.” And then Eighth Grade comes around and I’m like, “Whoa, what a wonderful story detailing the first moments of a daughter realizing her father’s unwavering love for her.” Then finally, when just a few weeks later I got the chance to see Leave No Trace... well, by that point the floodgates were open.
The order in which I watched these films definitely peppered my overall reception to all three. First and foremost, Hearts Beat Loud is a film of pure delight. My only fear going into the film was that the original music wouldn’t live up to its importance, but of course my fears were unfounded. The music is surprisingly too good, the cast clearly has a lot of fun, and the hearts do, in fact, beat loud. But at its core it’s a beautiful “how-to” for realizing your little girl has been a woman for years. There are a multitude of reasons for loving Frank (Nick Offerman) and his conviction for what’s best in regards to his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons); the most important being his growth in realizing what’s truly best for her is what she wants. I’m sure I’ll wrestle with this when I’m a parent someday, but the best thing you can do for your child when they’re a young adult is to accept that while they may be your child, they are no longer a child.
Frank’s greatest struggle in the film is realizing Sam has aspirations of her own which don’t take into account his plans. When Frank’s wife, and Sam’s mother, passed away, Frank lost a lover, a co-parent, and a musical partner. And of course as Sam grew, he began to see in her a musical talent to rival his own. Frank himself is stuck in a state of limbo, struggling to move forward. His record store, which he had owned since Sam was an infant, is a constant reminder of his life pre-loss, and during the course of the film he makes the very hard decision to part ways with it. It’s as if his life is the end of a record, trapped in a never-ending groove with no music, until he and Sam record their single, “Hearts Beat Loud.” It sparks a new desire in Frank to pursue musical success, but he doesn’t yet realize that Sam is his success. She’s the new to his old, the fresh to his stale, the future to his past. She constantly tells him that pursuing any kind of recording contract is not in her cards, but he can’t hear her through the music. She wants to pursue a medical degree and be something new, and Frank wants to catch an old dream. Ultimately, the entire film is a wrestling match between the two, with each of them begging the other to see things from their perspective. They each suffer from arrhythmia until the end of the film, when their hearts finally begin to beat regularly and in tune with one another’s.
What I really loved about Hearts Beat Loud is how unapologetically it features a deeply dorky dad who happens to be in touch with his emotions and his manliness. He never once balks at the fact that his daughter is in a same-sex relationship. Although outwardly Frank is all man and brawn, inwardly he’s very much in tune with the current socio-political climate. If Hearts Beat Loud chronicles the difficulty with which parents accept their empty nests, the following two films step backwards in time. Eighth Grade moves backwards four years to another era of changing schools (of building, of thought, of growth…). The film features Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a young woman experiencing the last week of her eighth grade year. If Nick Offerman’s Frank is a “man’s man,” then Kayla’s father, Mark (a heart-wrenching Josh Hamilton) could be considered a “woman’s man.”
Eighth Grade chronicles just what it’s like to be an eighth grader during the current era of smartphones and social media accounts. All of that sounds terrifying to me. Not to say I experienced an unfortunate junior high or high school career, but I can’t even begin to imagine the stress that social media can put on a youngster who’s just trying to figure out who they are. Pretty much from the beginning of the film, the audience knows it’s just Kayla and her dad on their own. Where this differs from Hearts Beat Loud, and subsequently Leave No Trace, is that you learn towards the end of the film that Kayla’s mother had abandoned their family while Kayla was very young. Even though I was 11 when my dad left, I know exactly what it feels like to be abandoned by a parent. But, if you could call any part of my experience lucky, I was blessed to not have to worry about the constant demands of social media. Even though there was a definite emotional hole that my father left behind, I was able to fill that void by climbing trees and biking down country backroads. I didn’t have to worry about “likes” or “reposts.” Even though I struggled with outward validation of self-worth, at least it wasn’t the only means of self-redemption.
There is absolutely no doubt in the audience’s mind that Mark lives his life for and by his daughter. Kayla just can’t look away from her phone long enough to see it. As she is constantly worried about her perception, she has a hard time detaching from the counterfeit world of social media to take a look around the physical realm of even her own homestead. Slowly, through a series of cringe-worthy encounters, Kayla begins to wake up to the world around her, and gains a wealth of confidence as a result. But, the most heartbreaking scene is Kayla’s admission to her father that she knows she’s a disappointment. Because she can’t live up to the holograms of the “most popular girl in school” or “the boy of her dreams,” she truly believes she’s unworthy of love. And people who feel unworthy of love don’t, or can’t, look beyond their misconceived shortcomings.
During this particular scene, Kayla and her father sit at a bonfire where Kayla burns a box of her “hopes and dreams.” She doesn’t ask her father if she’s a disappointment, she claims to know she’s one. But what she thinks are her faults are her true strengths. Mark’s tearful monologue of what makes Kayla great makes me tear up just writing about it. Their connection in this film is so well-acted that I could be convinced these two really are father and daughter. The strongest takeaway from Mark’s speech is that Kayla possesses an innate goodness. He tells her that the way she operates in the world brings only positivity. Despite her desire to fit in with the “cool kids,” she never belittles anyone or attempts to gain from someone’s loss, which is so often the key to the cool kingdom. And ultimately, Mark says he didn’t teach Kayla any of this. He cannot fathom how Kayla has matured into such an intelligent, gracious young lady. His knowledge of Kayla’s wonderfulness is just as innate as Kayla’s goodness. It’s the kind of speech every young, struggling child wants to hear, albeit initially not from your parent. I’ve heard a speech similar to this one. It changes your life.
When I was in sixth grade, my first school year post-divorce, I was told I was going to need glasses and potentially braces too. My best-friend at the time told me I was going to become such a dork. (Disclaimer: said then best-friend is a lovely person. It just goes to show what stress every young person is under when it comes to meeting “the standards”). But frankly, I was devastated. Everything in my life was changing. My family had to move into a rental home, I was put into a different home-room than all of the friends I had made since second grade, and obviously, I was starting to physically change into the woman I would later become. And during the course of severe change, it’s only natural to want to see the flaws in anything and everything around you... including your parent. Beginning to realize your Wonder Woman or Superman of a parent is only human is one of the most difficult moments of adolescence, whether you’re a child of divorce or not. Not to say that a single parent can’t completely master raising a child (or four) on their own; I think most parents struggle even when they’re a part of a couple. Every parent is learning as they go 100% of the time, and being a child and realizing that, can be very disconcerting.
The moment where child becomes parent is inevitable in every single person’s lifetime, no matter to what degree. Leave No Trace takes that experience and magnifies it through the lens of a Veteran father suffering from PTSD (Will, harrowingly portrayed by Ben Foster) raising his 13 year old daughter, Tom (a mountain of a performance by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) illegally out in the woods in the outskirts of Portland, OR. Although they’re aware of the risks they take living on public property, they live a mostly serene life, focused on conservation and education. It’s only when they’re found by park rangers and re-settled into society that Will’s parenting is called into question. Tom loves her life and feels extremely cared for, even though her upbringing is the exact opposite of the norm. She repeatedly states that her father does provide the shelter, education, and food necessary for her to live a satisfactory lifestyle. But when their standards of living are held up to the standards of society’s perceptions, everything begins to fall apart.
Will’s struggle with PTSD does manifest in ways that are detrimental to Tom’s upbringing. This doesn’t make him a bad parent, but it does raise important questions of just what makes a good parent. Where Will falls short is his failure to recognize when his daughter is beginning to flourish in a society he just can’t accept for himself. I cannot claim to understand what it feel like to have PTSD. Depression, on the other hand, does run in my family. Whether that’s a result of the divorce or a pre-existing condition is debatable, but I do know that depression and PTSD can lie dormant for periods of time that lull someone into a state of false security. Will, on the other hand, lives his life in fear of associating with triggers of his PTSD, mainly larger society and enclosed spaces. This fear leads to his and Tom’s ultimate separation, but as is the theme of the movies I’m exploring, Will’s love for Tom is unwavering. His realization that Tom is becoming an adult that he can no longer support in his way is hard to come by, and Tom has to become the parent and put her foot down to provide what is best for her. But Will trusts her, and by letting her leave him, Will proves his love for her. Just like in Hearts Beat Loud, a parent’s recognition of their child’s agency is most likely the hardest parenting milestone of all. Love may come relatively easy, but a mutual understanding of respect, trust, and consideration has to be the ultimate goal.
There’s definitely a disconnect between these three films when it comes to the precise thematic and emotional weight each possesses, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect triptych of films this year. Each film define the trials I too endured with my single mother. With each new generation, there will inevitably be facets of life that the prior generation just cannot understand. With the rapid development of technology and, subsequently, society, children are in as powerful of a position than ever to teach their parents the ways of the world. But these three films go to show that nobody can make it alone. Regardless of parent/child dynamic, to be human is to constantly be learning from those around you, to better understand what makes you, as an individual, feel loved and complete.
The importance of Hearts Beat Loud, Eighth Grade, and Leave No Trace is unquantifiable. In the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it has never been more important for women of all ages to recognize their strengths and importance. It is also an important time to recognize that nobody is calling out all men. The three fathers in these films are wonderful examples of human beings who have faults, but are also capable of great love and devotion. These men are flawed, and that’s okay. I am flawed, and that’s okay. So long as you move through this world with compassion, integrity, and an ability to hear your fellow man, forgiveness is always a conversation away. I cannot stress enough the importance of showcasing three men who are vulnerable and steadfast in their care of another. To use communication through music, social media, and the symbiotic relationship we share with nature is not a fluke in these three films. In such a loud world, these films implore us to really hear each other and to look beyond ourselves to understand the true nature of an individual’s reality. Different does not equal negative. Things are about to get personal.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.