There’s a line early on in “Hearts Beat Loud” that epitomizes the current status of LGBTQ representation in film and television. Frank (Nick Offerman), a single dad living in Red Hook with a struggling record store, notices something has been distracting his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) from her nightly studies. “Is it a girlfriend?” he asks, before adding as an after thought, “Boyfriend?” Sam blushes, then brushes him off dismissively. The audience knows what Frank has intuited: she’s been smooching an art student named Rose (Sasha Lane).
Their tender relationship unfolds naturally throughout the film, with Sam’s impending college departure the only obstacle to their budding romance. If this were a different kind of movie, their love might be kept secret from Frank for fear of how he would react, or someone might get cold feet because they’re in denial. There might even be a violent hate crime to tear them apart. Not so in “Hearts Beat Loud,” which treats Sam’s interest in girls as an unremarkable fact of life in Red Hook, which it is for so many people in Brooklyn, and even the world. It’s a natural extension of the queer characters that Clemons has pursued for the duration of her career.
“We just don’t get to see that,” Clemons told IndieWire in a recent phone interview, where she radiated a warmth on par with her character. “I don’t even wanna use the word ‘normalize,’ you know? People kinda use that word when talking about Sam and Rose’s relationship in this movie, and it’s like—’We’re not normalizing it, it is normal. This isn’t a fucking creature that you have to make appear normal. It’s not a hobbit and a wizard! It’s like, what?”
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In the world reflected by Hollywood product, however, it isn’t normal — a dearth of meaty roles for LGBTQ characters has kept many young actors in the closet. Clemons and Lane, however, both publicly identify as queer, and they have been out of the closet since early in their careers, playing almost as many gay characters as straight ones. In addition to “Hearts Beat Loud,” Lane followed up her breakout performance in Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” with a plum role in Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance award-winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which opens theatrically this July.
After beginning her career in kids’ TV, Clemons broke out as the lovable tomboy Diggy in Rick Famuyiwa’s indie hit “Dope.” She then played the seductive babysitter Bianca in Season 1 of Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” and later feigned veganism to impress a girl in Joe Swanberg’s “Easy,” in what was easily one of the best episodes of the anthology series. “Hearts Beat Loud” feels like a continuation of that character, and Clemons is right at home opposite such venerated talent as Offerman, Toni Colette, Blythe Danner, and Ted Danson. But it was the script, written by the film’s director Brett Haley, that attracted Clemons to the project.
“Normally, we see movies where the conflict is being gay, and I’m really happy that there’s finally a movie where that’s not the conflict in this person’s life,” she said. “Although that is the case for some, there are people all over the world that are queer and their conflict isn’t their relationship or their sexuality. It was nice to step away from that typical storyline.”
In the same way that queerness is just a fact of life in “Hearts Beat Loud,” so is the ethnicity of Sam’s white dad. Her mother dies in a bike accident before the events of the movie, leaving Frank to raise her on his own. For Clemons, who is biracial, it was another chance at increasing visibility for the varying experiences of people of color. Reminding herself never to read the comments, Clemons shared her frustration with a YouTube comment on the film’s trailer that suggested the movie was “trying too hard” by having a black character with a white father.
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“What do you mean it’s trying too hard? Do you think when my mom had me, she tried to put on a front? What does that mean?” she said. “We’re not trying. This is life, this is a reflection of the world that we live in. We need to see more of all of these things, because we don’t see these dynamics, and therefore people think they’re watching something bizarre, and it shouldn’t be bizarre.”
As for the future of queer storytelling, Clemons wants more. “I wish we could have our own ‘The L Word’ for this generation. Where is that?” she asked. Clemons was tight-lipped at the mention of Lena Waithe’s TBS comedy pilot “The Twenties,” about a queer black woman and her two straight best friends. “I read it,” she said. “I think everything she does is amazing.” She declined to comment further. Whether or not she’s attached to that project, the future of queer representation is safe in Clemons’ capable hands.
“Hearts Beat Loud” is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and expands to more cities on June 14.