Film Review: American Folk

Actor-musicians Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth make sweet music together in this tender road-tripping drama.
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American Folk, written, directed and edited by David Heinz, seeks to recall a bygone era, the memory of it too distant these days, when kindness and brotherhood mattered more in America than which candidate anyone supported in the last election.

Though it seems a lifetime ago, it’s been less than 20 years since that moment when, bound by the shock and horror and overwhelming sympathy provoked by the events of 9/11, people seemed to open their hearts and minds to their countrymen like never before. Strangers were embraced as friends, and everyone looked out for one another. In retrospect, it was just an instant, that grace under pressure. It’s worth remembering that such warmth lies just beneath the surface. To paraphrase a young hitchhiker in this compassionate indie, perhaps it won’t take another national tragedy to give rise to that feeling again.

Searching for that lost America, Heinz and his road company evoke something special in the slow-brewing story of Elliott (Joe Purdy) and Joni (Amber Rubarth), two strangers who meet-cute on a flight from LAX bound for New York. It’s the morning of September 11, 2001, so their flight doesn’t make it far from the gate before the plane is ordered back to Los Angeles. Forced to hit the road for their East Coast destination, the two wind up setting out cross-country together in a borrowed canary-yellow Chevy camper van.

Not just a motor vehicle but an all-purpose plot device, that old hippie van is just one precious detail of the film’s endearing allegiance to analog pleasures like mixtapes, trucker caps and acoustic guitars. The truth is, it all borders at times on being too precious, and undoubtedly Joni, desperate to reach her sick mother in New York City, and Elliott, a struggling musician en route to join a well-known band for a concert tour, are thrown too conveniently into the van, and on course to find romance. Further, Rubarth occasionally overplays Joni’s manic-pixie-dreamgirl goodness, while Purdy underplays just about everything—and yet the film works.

Evoking in its early scenes the gut-punch of horror experienced by every witness to that dreadful morning, even those who watched from thousands of miles away, the film then passes through the dazed days that followed. As Joni and Elliott venture deeper into the heart of this vast continent, terror fades into the background. They meet an earthy cross-section of strangers who are especially in the mood, under the world-shifting circumstances, to show kindness to travelers, regardless of where they’re from, or where they’re going.

Often, music is what brings the characters closer together, from a burned-out vet, persuasively portrayed by David Fine, to an audience of just-met friends around a campfire. In addition to discovering the welcoming side of a wounded nation, Joni and Elliott, fairly early on, stumble upon a shared love for American folk music. Driving that van across deserts and plains, they bond over folk harmonies, their voices blending in a way that suggests the two are made for each other, and that Heinz has more than likely seen a production of Once.

Accomplished singer-songwriters Purdy and Rubarth perform well together, in character, shaping the story through the emotional give-and-take of their duets. Most of the songs are folk standards, with a pair of winning originals—one composed by Purdy, the other by Rubarth—added to the mix.

The film marks the feature directing debut of Heinz, a veteran Hollywood editor and visual-effects editor, who stays true throughout American Folk to the lo-fi sensibilities of backroad America. The camera focuses on the wide landscapes, and close on Purdy and Rubarth’s faces, hers a more expressive canvas by far, although they both say a lot with silence.

They express more in song, whether singing solo, or with a truck-driving passerby, and the film says plenty about that post-traumatic moment’s brief respite from infighting. It really happened: For a few days (weeks? months?), nastiness was trampled by hugs and handshakes. That wasn’t the only reality, of course, and darkness does intrude on Joni and Elliott’s odyssey, via remote, clean-scrubbed references and ambient news broadcasts. But this is a story aiming its view towards the light. “Love one another,” reads a sign taped to a lamppost somewhere in Manhattan, where the movie ultimately arrives, with the characters’ sense of strength and resilience at least partly restored.

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