American Folk was originally titled September 12th. David Heinz’s feature directorial and writing debut tells the story of two young folk singers who meet cute (with a heaping side of tragic) when their plane to New York is grounded in L.A. on 9/11. A few coincidences later, they’re driving a beat-up van together across the country, seeing firsthand the effect that the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil is having on their fellow countrymen.
Initially, Elliott (Joe Purdy, a real-life musician making his acting debut) isn’t much of a talker, and when he does talk, he doesn’t much bother to be nice. The too-obviously named Joni (Amber Rubarth, also a musician making her acting debut) doesn’t break through until she walks up to the van after a pit stop and joins Elliott as he’s singing “Red River Valley.” It’s not so much an ah-ha moment as a “hey, you’re not so bad” one, and from then on they liven up the drive with their songs, sometimes getting a little help from strangers along the way.
American Folk—and the actors themselves—come alive when the music’s playing, particularly if you’re a fan of Pete Seeger-era Americana. Rubarth has a crystalline voice that injects her bubbly personality into even the saddest lyric, while Purdy is an accomplished strummer whose own vocals can make even the most upbeat lyric sound sad. When they get a tip from someone that an old geezer named Dale (David Fine) may be able to patch up their overheating van, they spend an unexpectedly enjoyable evening playing for the scrawny recluse, after which he remarks, “The power of music, my friends. The power of music.”
Joni and Elliott get a lot of help, advice, and freebies throughout their trip. Yes, because this is a 9/11 film, it is sentimental. But anyone who remembers the days following the tragedy will know it’s accurate: People were kinder. They said, “I love you.” They forgot old grievances. Suddenly everyone was family. Fast-forward 17-plus years, and what do we have? Divisiveness like this country has never seen and record cynicism and vitriol to go along with it. Even if our national panic is justified, having an eternally sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach isn’t good for anyone. So for once, a little sentimentality is nice.
The pair do encounter some ugliness when they visit the family home of a lesbian hitchhiker who’s decided to come out of the closet and introduce her girlfriend—while they’re there. This is one of the few scenes that feel forced. The woman’s father is black, but he’s progressive enough to have married a white woman. Yet he’s so conservative he’s a staunch Dubya backer and fumes when his crying daughter reveals her secret. Joni and Elliott leave before the conversation can play out, but you don’t imagine it ends well.
By the time they reach Manhattan, the travelers are pretty tight. And it’s in no small part due to the tunes, whether they were writing them, singing along to them, or dancing in front of a car’s headlights as a radio played them. The sonic jubilation matches the unprecedented warmth they experienced across the country. The power of music indeed.
American Folk opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.