We Are the Hartmans: Film Review

There’s a certain scrappy charm and a heart-in-the-right-place sincerity here, but too little polish or coherence.

Director Laura Newman has good intentions, but the script is inconsistent and the film is all over the map.

NEW YORK – The community spirit that infuses We Are the Hartmans gives this modest indie comedy a timely hook, connecting to the country’s growing grassroots rejection of America as the land of the rich. But the good intentions of Laura Newman’s first feature don’t quite counterbalance its sloppy direction and inconsistent script.

There’s a kernel of a solid story in Newman and Peter Brash’s screenplay, which centers on the bid to save a beloved small town rock bar from the inexorable march of big box stores and strip malls. The characters and situations were hatched partly out of improvisations, which means the uneven cast at least brings affection to the material.

Hartman (Richard Chamberlain) is a benevolent middle-aged hippie dude who for 20 years has run his bar as a haven for misfits and a nurturing environment for their kids, even offering his own music scholarship program. But when a medical emergency summons his daughters, Diana (Jennifer Restivo) and Pam (Audrey Sawaya), Hartman’s dire financial situation spells the end of the bar.

The campaign to save Hartman’s is led by two core staffers, Jordan (Ben Curtis), who has had a crush on Diana since he was 10, and his sister Morgan (Joy Suprano). Back in high school, she briefly dated Baxter Brown (Jonah Spear), a Hartman musical prodigy who has gone on to pop stardom. Along with assorted other local eccentrics, they converge on the bar to stage a fundraising benefit, while shrewish Pam leads the movement to shut down and sell.

A war vet with PTSD and a metal plate in his head that he uses as a cymbal while drumming, Jordan signed up as a Marine to protect his home. But he returned from Afghanistan to find half the town boarded up and most of the places he loved from childhood supplanted by franchise outlets. With a little more development, this strand, along with the gentle blossoming of Jordan’s romance with Diana, could have given the film a soulful center. But the writers spread their attention too thinly among too many characters and fluffy sitcom scenarios.

The movie keeps threatening to acquire some emotional weight, but it remains goofy when it should push for depth. Newman’s direction is just not sufficiently artful to wrangle the large ensemble – which includes a bunch of drag queens and fantasy-football fans for whom Hartman’s is the last gay-friendly bar in three counties.

In terms of what it wants to be, the film is all over the map, as are the performances, some of them gratingly broad. Too often, Newman’s answer to pacing or tonal problems is to stuff in more music, notably some infectious tunes from New York band Black Taxi.

With more adequate foreshadowing, a peaceful demonstration in the closing stretch, in which the bar patrons mourn the death of their town, might have resonated in the current national climate. Instead, with its haphazard plotting and ineffectual message, the movie appears to have been more fun to make than to watch.

Venue: CMJ Film Festival, New York

Production companies: Kaid Media, Spear Creative Group

Cast: Ben Curtis, Jennifer Restivo, Richard Chamberlain, John Carey, Dylan Clements, Chris Cook, Brie Eley, Murray Hill, James Monroe Iglehart, Charlie Romanelli, Blayne K. Ross, Audrey Sawaya, Linda Simpson, Jonah Spear, Joy Suprano, Jennifer Tsay

Director: Laura Newman

Screenwriter: Peter Brash, Laura Newman

Producers: Anne Court, Ben Curtis, Laura Newman, Cielito Pascual, Blayne K. Ross, Marc Solomon, Jonah Spear

Executive producer: Stuart Adam

Director of photography: Paul Rondeau

Production designer: Jessica Hinkle

Music: Alec Puro, Black Taxi

Costume designer: Tilly Grimes

Editor: Jack Haigis

No rating, 84 minutes.