Sure, another movie with ‘American’ in the title hardly inspires confidence but, with only a small budget and no big-name stars to speak of, first-time feature director David Heinz has somehow crafted a delightfully deft examination of America in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks, told via a road trip by two strangers forced into a journey of mutual convenience. If a road movie about September 11 starring a couple of folk singers who have never acted before sounds like an antidote to the relentless tsunami of big studio releases that you are looking for, then American Folk is most definitely worth your time. It could be argued that American Folk is not about September 11 per se, but the events in New York are certainly the catalyst for a cross-country journey that Elliott (Joe Purdy) and Joni (Amber Rubarth) undertake, imbuing their adventure with a solemnity that lingers hauntingly in the background of their interactions with the various people they encounter along the way.
Folk musicians who have released 20+ albums between them, Purdy and Rubarth are perfectly cast as the introspective, people-averse Elliott and his much more gregarious travelling companion. The two meet when occupying adjacent seats on a plane bound for New York from Los Angeles on that fateful day in 2001. Not long after takeoff, the flight is ordered to return to LA, leaving our protagonists stranded, each with a desperate need to get to the Big Apple; he to take on a job as a guitarist-for-hire with a band that is somewhat at odds with his folk leanings and which becomes the brunt of many gentle jibes, while Joni is responsible for the care of her ailing mother. When Joni secures access to a clapped-out van, she invites Elliott to join her in on a journey of more than 4000 kilometres. With little thought put into the logistics of the trip, the pair set off from California as virtual strangers and it soon becomes apparent that the van will prove a less than reliable mode of transport.
In addition to the chemistry between the leads as their relationship moves from one of awkward unease to a kinship driven by a shared love of folk music, there are three things that make this film such a delight; the music that they create, the landscape that they traverse on the journey and the people they meet along the way, eking out an existence in a world that is far removed from life in the major metropolises. This is a side of America we rarely see on film and the title itself is a play on words, referring not only to the music, but the people – or folks – that they encounter on the road. Heinz, who also wrote the screenplay, never pokes fun at the various characters, none of whom are more memorable, or likeable for that matter, than Whitey (David Fine), a Vietnam veteran who lives an isolated existence in the New Mexico desert, oblivious to what is going on in the world, including the tragedy unfolding in New York. Rocked by the reception he received upon returning from the war, Whitey retreated to the sanctity of his caravan in the middle of nowhere and remained there ever since.
Much more than an ode to folk music, American Folk is a voyage of discovery for both the audience and the two protagonists as their travels expose corners of America that are all but invisible to anybody other than those hardy souls who populate these communities. Heinz’s script is neither melodramatic nor preachy and the widescreen cinematography from Devin Whetstone evokes a timelessness that never strays into nostalgia. Eschewing his background as a visual effects editor on blockbusters such as Wolverine and the Planet of the Apes reboots, Heinz makes good use of the chemistry between the two musicians, who both prove more than capable as actors, to craft a gentle, nuanced rumination on the healing nature of music.