There is a remarkable intimacy that weaves itself into every moment of writer/director David Heinz's indie gem American Folk, a gentle folk song of a film starring real life folk singers Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth as two folk singers grounded in California in the days following 9/11 who embark on a road trip to get to New York where opportunities may or may not await them.
I have seen American Folk described as Once for folk music, an understandable and maybe even reasonable comparison but one that doesn't really begin to describe the gentle, soul-changing vibe that carries this wonderful little film. While Once also focused itself on music, the film was as much concerned about a budding romance as it was its music or its journey.
American Folk, originally released under the title September 12th, is far more concerned about the journey than the destination and gives far greater weight to the individual journeys of its characters than it does any faux creation of coupling.
Indeed, American Folk is not about romance. American Folk is about the kindness of strangers and the ability of music to heal us all.
Joe Purdy, whose music I do know, and Amber Rubarth, whose music I am only now learning, are not trained actors. Thankfully. As Elliott and Joni, the two radiate authenticity even if that lack of acting range occasionally mutes the emotional impact one might expect from certain scenes. It's an artistic choice that Heinz has made to cast non-actors and it's an artistic choice that pays off far more than it doesn't.
While the film takes place in the days following 9/11, American Folk never falls victim to the histrionics that have plagued many other films trying to tackle themes that seem almost unable to be tackled. There's an underlying deep, almost environmental grief that settles in within the foundation of the film and within the 14 American locales the folk visits on its journey from one coast to another. We hear newscasts in the background, yet we also experience Elliott and Joni as they time and again experience the kindness of strangers as Elliott tries to get to a show that he desperately needs and Joni tries to return home to a seriously ill mother.
In some ways, I suppose you could say that they're both undertaking different journeys to the same destination.
The change of the film's title from September 12th to American Folk is, in fact, a brilliant one. While 9/11 is an essential component in all that unfolds here, it doesn't define this story. In fact, it's the American Folk, the music and the people, that define this story and the ways in which it weaves its magic across the country. Heinz has crafted a film that is really a love song to these American Folk and D.P. Devin Whetstone has lensed it to near perfection.
The characters encountered along the journey, ranging from Krisha Fairchild's Scottie to David Fine's Dale, feel like authentic American Folk one might encounter in some obscure American town and who, just when a miracle was needed, would show up in ways that are simple yet life-changing.
Rather than Once, if I were to compare American Folk to any recent film it might be the remarkable gem that is just arriving in theaters called Lucky, a film that doesn't so much center around music but a film that captures the spirit of everyday American folks in a rather ordinary way that is pretty remarkable. It contains Harry Dean Stanton's final performance, a performance that is nothing short of remarkable. American Folk is just as quiet, its performances a tad less brilliant yet making up that lack of brilliance with a naturalism that fits perfectly within the context of the story. It's a film that enveloped me as I watched it and it's a film I can't stop thinking about it.
I am sitting here writing this review, rather than reports of 9/11 I find myself listening to Joe Purdy's "Who Will Be Next?" in the background, a delightful and meaningful backdrop that has me remembering all the images, sounds, and music that unfolded in American Folk. It has me remembering my own road travels including a 41-day, 1000+ mile wheelchair ride around Indiana when I was in my 20's that taught me my own lessons about the kindness of strangers and the healing power of human connection.
There are movies that inform. There are movies that entertain. There are movies that challenge. Then, there are movies that do some sort of soul-shifting deep inside who we are... American Folk is such a film, an indie gem that deserves to be seen and needs to be seen during this time when so much separates and divides. American Folk may be exactly what we need to remind us that we really can get through all of this together.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic