film review: american folk

Everyone in their mid-twenties and older remembers where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. That day spurred a tectonic shift in American life with very little positive connotation. American Folk challenges the bleakness of those early days following the attacks, though, sending its two leads on a cross-country tour of the spontaneous kindness and warmth that bloomed in response to such devastating hate.

Seated next to one another on a flight from California to New York that morning, strangers Elliott (Joe Purdy) and Joni (Amber Rubarth) find themselves stranded on the West Coast after their plane is grounded. Elliott has an important gig to make in order for his future prospects as a singer to stay afloat and Joni needs to return home to her ailing mother, so when her relative offers them the use of a semi-decrepit Dodge Prospector van, the pair hits the road.

Joe Purdy and Amber Robarth in American Folk

Cluttered with old guitars and scribbled over with messages from fans, the truck used to serve as transport for a folk band. Much like some old hippies the car has grit and resilience, but hasn’t aged as well as could be hoped. An overheating engine forces Elliott and Joni to stick to the back roads and slower speed limits. This unexpected slowdown gives them an intimate tour of a country reeling from the recent terror attacks and coping through generosity of spirit.

Purdy and Robarth make their acting debuts here, after both have found considerable success as folk singer-songwriters. You wouldn’t suspect such short résumés from their performances. They play off one another well: he, the somewhat cantankerous musician whose attitude makes landing gigs difficult, which further sours his mood in an unproductive loop; and she, the kinder and more outgoing foil. Their voices mesh together in several lovely duets, although by the film’s end it feels like there was room for a little more singing.

The supporting cast is diverse and generally successful. David Fine gives a particularly delightful turn as a semi-hermit living in the Arizona desert to whom Elliott and Joni must turn for car repairs. With neither television nor radio, and rarely venturing into town, he’s managed to escape the earthshattering news out of New York. That ignorance, and the contrasting ways in which the two travelers think it should be addressed, makes for some heartrending moments. Miranda LaDawn Hill and Emma Thatcher charm as hitch-hiking college girlfriends spurred by recent events to come out to their parents.

Despite its role as catalyst for the events of American Folk, the most we ever see of 9/11 is some footage of smoke drifting far across the New York City skyline. While the attacks loom large throughout, writer/director David Heinz keeps a tight focus on how that tragedy rippled across the nation to touch men and women from all walks of life. He reminds us of the power of music and the goodness that rises up in times of darkness, which is an altogether lovely message to see…and hear.

RATING: ★★ ½

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