AMERICAN FOLK: A Good-Hearted Road Trip With A Great Soundtrack
David Heinz's excellent debut American Folk is an ardent plea for togetherness in a divided world. Aided by his leading actors, talented cinematographer, and ear-worm of a soundtrack, this journey is a privilege to share.
It may seem strange to look back at the time immediately after the worst terrorist attack on American soil so fondly, but googling ‘9/11 unity’ yields hundreds of headlines bursting with nostalgia for those days, where what really mattered was thrown into stark relief, and petty, divisive politics were temporarily robbed of their power to separate. When you compare that to today, an era when the United States (and much of the world) has rarely been so divided, it becomes easier to understand that nostalgia.
American Folk (originally titled September 12th) takes us on a road trip across the country, in the frightening, unifying week immediately following 9/11. In the film, Elliott (Joe Purdy) and Joni (Amber Rubarth) are two folk musicians who meet when their Los Angeles to New York City flight is grounded on 9/11. He needs to get to NYC for a gig, and she needs to get there to see her sick mother, and so the two strangers hop in an ancient, overheating van and make the trip by road, travelling through fourteen states and meeting many characters along the way.
“Bring Back The Folk!”
Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are both real-life folk musicians, and neither of them have acted in a film before. Not that you’d know it from American Folk; they both turn in engaging, natural performances, and share an easy chemistry. David Heinz (also a first-timer) directs them smartly, focusing not on histrionics, but instead on the smaller moments, and the awkward silences shared between the strangers. And, of course, he knows where their real talents lie – music.
The music in American Folk is a mix of classic Americana and new compositions from Rubarth and Purdy. Some songs are performed by our leads, and others (perhaps most memorably Pete Seeger‘s ‘Preserven El Parque Elysian’) are just heard on the soundtrack. Of the ‘live’ performances, Purdy and Rubarth‘s rendition of ‘Red River Valley’ is particularly special.
“Bring back the folk”, is both a catchphrase and a mission of Joni’s throughout the film, and it’s a testament to American Folk‘s sincerity that this comes across as an earnest declaration rather than something more twee. All the performances here, from the first time Joni and Elliott sing together in their van, to a singalong around an Appalachian campfire, are so heartfelt that they blow any cynicism clean away. This is a film that believes in the power of music, to heal and unite, with the whole of its being. And a belief that strong, in an age of such irony and scepticism, is really rather moving.
Politics Is The Enemy
For the most part, American Folk eschews politics, opting instead to focus on what it felt like to be in the U.S. during the days after 9/11. Everyone that Elliott and Joni meets on their journey helps them in one way or another; from the cab driver who turns off the meter, to the Vietnam veteran (David Fine) who fixes their van in return for a song and a meal, and the friend (Krisha Fairchild), who lends them the van in the first place. Everyone is scared (well, except for the veteran, who lives so far off the grid that he doesn’t know what’s happened), but they all want to help.
There’s only one time when our duo meet someone who’s less than lovely. Fortuitously, as they are about to run out of money, they meet Bianca (Miranda LaDawn Hill), and Emily (Emma Thatcher), a hitchhiking couple, willing to pay for gas, who are headed to Bianca’s house so she can come out to her parents. Rather awkwardly, Elliott and Joni are invited in to share the family meal, and it soon becomes clear that Bianca’s father (Bruce Beatty), a staunch conservative supporter of George W. Bush, is not going to take the news of his daughter’s homosexuality well. And he doesn’t.
Bianca’s father is the only person who talks politics in the film, and Heinz draws a definite parallel between that and his unfriendliness. Politics is the villain in American Folk; it’s always waiting just off-screen, heard in flickers on the van radio, or on the TV in bars, ready to divide.
Interestingly, it’s the American flag here, so often used as a political weapon. that is the symbol of unity. A Hispanic shopkeeper hands Joni a flag (“From one American to another”), and Elliott buys himself and Joni cheesy flag sunglasses, which they don happily for the journey. Whilst politics is the divider, it’s the flag that binds everyone together.
From Sea To Shining Sea
Whilst at the beginning of American Folk, it seems that both Joni and Elliott are under urgent time pressure to get to New York, it isn’t long before the need to rush has dissipated. Part of this is out of necessity; after all, with a van that won’t stop overheating, there’s only so fast that the two of them can go. But as the journey progresses, it appears that the pace has moved from a rush to a crawl on purpose. Our characters find comfort in the people they are meeting along the way, and, though they don’t talk about it much, it’s clear they are both nervous about what they’ll find when they arrive in NYC.
And of course, they may just be enjoying the scenery. It seems at times that our travellers are intent on visiting every state represented by the stars on the flag; they move from the deserts of New Mexico, up to the Appalachian Mountains, and through the green fields of Maryland before they find their way home. All these different environments are filmed by the lush, sweeping lens of Devin Whetstone, another key member of the American Folk team making their feature-film debut. Even if you don’t enjoy the music played on Joni and Elliott’s road trip, you’re sure to enjoy the view.
In Conclusion: American Folk
With its unabashed patriotism and heartfelt reverence of ‘the power of music’, American Folk constantly risks crossing the line from earnest to cheesy. Happily, it never quite does.
David Heinz‘s excellent debut is an ardent plea for togetherness in a divided world. Aided by his leading actors (lets hope this isn’t the last we see of Purdy or Rubarth on the big screen), talented cinematographer, and ear-worm of a soundtrack, Joni and Elliott’s journey is a privilege to share.
Have you seen American Folk? What did you think?
American Folk is released in the US on January 26th. For further release information, click here.
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