EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
Heartbeat, the new film from Canadian director and animator Andrea Dorfman, is about a drifter looking for a purpose and spends much of its 95-minute running time searching for a pulse.
The aimless protagonist is Justine, a failed musician with a short black bob and square glasses. She is played by Tanya Davis, a more successful poet and singer-songwriter. Justine’s dreams of playing music felt flat when she fainted onstage during her first public show. Now living in her grandma’s home, a quaint and quiet place that fits well into the film’s Atlantic Canada setting, Justine taps her guitar nervously and waits for her friends to come over and talk over her.
When her ex-boyfriend decides they need some time apart, she searches for something to do. Could it be reigniting her passion for playing music? Once she meets Ruby (Stephanie Clattenburg), a friendly drummer at the local instrument shop, Justine sees a road to recover from her broken heart as she figures out what she really wants.
This is Davis’s first starring role and she does not ease into it comfortably. Her poetry, spoken in voice-over on animated segments, lacks rhythm. She speaks too quickly, not letting the meaning of the words wash over the viewer. Her acting leaves much to be desired, as well. As the dorky Justine, she oversells the character’s cuteness. In one moment, her hand starts bleeding from some casual strumming, but the way she aches and then tends to the wound, it feels like it would have resulted from a much more frantic instrumentation.
One expects more effort was put into the paintings seen throughout and the colorful costumes than into the screenplay, which hobbles around for a while as Justine (and, alas, the audience) tries to figure out her relationship to the things and people around her. Meanwhile, the song selection, including much from Davis’s repertoire, is also precious enough to make the Juno soundtrack sound like heavy metal.
Regardless, there are some neat artistic ideas at play here, such as an arresting, sad moment when Dorfman lets the rain fall on the camera lens, soaking it. Meanwhile, the animation (done by the director and Gilly Fogg) is vibrant, even in moments interspersed with the live-action world – when Justine strums her guitar, little splotches of painted circles vibrate where the notes come from.
Heartbeat is not without its charms, although most of that comes from the low-key, old-fashioned feel and look of the film. The characters wear cozy, wool clothing, climb trees and play their music on record players. However, like its central character, Dorfman’s film is laid-back and awkward. Heartbeat is too aimless to keep our attention and loaded with so many quirky touches – fluttering animation, twee music over montages of Justine staring, lovelorn, at books and photographs – that it becomes distractingly cute.