In a Heartbeat is a charming rendering of a young boy struggling with his burgeoning homosexuality.
The film opens with a schoolboy rushing behind a bush as his fellow classmate walks by. He stares longingly, climbing a tree to get a better view. His heart begins beating more rapidly and audibly as he becomes smitten—a sweet version of “The Tell-Tale Heart”—until it literally pops out of his chest. The personified heart rushes after the boy’s crush. The boy follows it, panicked, and in trying to retrieve it, he inadvertently becomes entangled with his crush. His heart leads him on a wild chase that ends in the boy and his crush in the school hallway. The boy attempts to tug his heart away from his crush as onlookers stare. Finally, the boy successfully extracts the heart but at great cost: it is torn in half. The boy retreats behind a tree, holding his literally broken heart. His crush approaches, holding the heart’s other half to see if the damage can be repaired.
Part of In a Heartbeat’s charm derives from its beautiful animation. The character design is artful and expressive—making it so the boy’s love but also anxiety and sheepishness are well conveyed and felt deeply by the audience. A particularly comical and well-animated moment is when the boy’s heart rushes towards his crush—despite the boy’s best efforts to contain it—and in slow motion brushes his crush’s quaffed hair. The music also paces beautifully with the animation design. It matches the delicacy of the animation and encapsulates the excitement of a first love; the soundtrack also subtly switches modes to embody the anxiety that accompanies the boy’s excitement—there is an undercurrent of urgency in the boy’s repression as he tries to navigate his blossoming sexuality.
Perhaps the cleverest part of the film is the personification of the protagonist’s heart. The device creates a divide between the boy’s internality and externality. The animation design for the heart is particularly of note—it is done in a less realistic mode than the rest of the piece. The design choice is highly calculated. The heart is made highly exaggerated in order to establish it as a representation of the boy’s unfettered emotions and excitement. The design reflects its status as the antithesis to external forces of repression. Further, the artistic decision to make the heart so adorable and loveable looking creates a rather interesting dynamic—the boy is almost the villain in his own story as he tries to thwart his own heart. His internal conflict is externalized and he is made his unfettered self’s enemy. The relationship established is an allegory of the harmful effects of societal discrimination and forced repression of homosexuality and the deleterious way that it forces people to fight against their own nature.
The tension between the internal and external is also seen with the boy’s preoccupation with being seen for who he truly is—this stands in stark contrast to his heart’s purely emotional outpourings. His inherent sweetness is limited by outside pressures. This is seen from the very opening, where the boy feels he must hide in order to look at his crush and even more prominently when shots of his classmates are shown as he ashamedly tries to recover his heart. The film’s ending can be seen as a hopeful one—the two boys find solace in each other—but if examined more closely, they are still in hiding, even if they are together. In a Heartbeat resolves in a heartwarming fashion while still showing there is more progress to be made.