Cinematographer Devin Whetstone issues a calling card’s worth of striking visuals in the American West for American Folk — writer / director / editor David Heinz’s tale of two folk music-singing strangers stuck in California, needed in New York, grounded on Sept. 11 and driving cross-country.
If only the mountain majesty were the only thing purple about this mightily meandering movie that feels like a gentle gathering of quirkiness rather than a cohesive, compelling story.
When the two leads — ably played by real-life folk-rockers Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth — shout “Bring back the folk!” from their unreliable mustard-yellow van on a desert highway, it feels like a bumper-sticker bromide slapped on a guitar case, not an invitation to really think about how our nation resolved dissonance, however briefly, for a harmonious post-9/11 chord.
In fact, there’s little necessary tissue connecting American Folk to that tragedy in the first place beyond instilling harrowing happenstance into what’s otherwise a hangout movie. Even Whetstone’s pretty pictures come to feel like little more than sizzle reels for various states’ tourism bureaus. (Even the stops to pee are picturesque.)
We meet Elliott (Purdy) in a dingy hotel room ahead of a New York-bound flight to fill in for the Hairpin Triggers, a rock band that values costume changes over musical integrity. His flight’s seatmate, Joni (Rubarth), has ended a brief West Coast break from caring for her sick mother.
After the day’s events ground their plane, Joni lets Elliott tag along to her aunt Scottie’s (Krisha Fairchild) home. Uncertain of how long before a travel ban is lifted, Joni and Elliott set forth in Scotties’ dilapidated van — which, they soon realize, overheats at certain speeds and sets them to scenic highways and byways.
Their respective pressing deadlines cause bristling tensions early, but it’s all quickly erased when Joni stumbles upon Scottie singing “Red River Valley” and immediately lays down a sweet harmony. From there, Elliott and Joni fill the spaces with music rather than middling small talk, encounter a shell-shocked Vietnam vet (David Fine), a lesbian couple on the verge of coming out (Miranda Hill and Emma Thatcher) and other assorted Americans, and dance around musical-kinship flirtation in a way indicating Heinz has seen a film like this “Once” or twice.
This would be fine if we learned anything about Elliott and Joni beyond their initial tags of frustration and guilt — or if any of the people they encountered were emblematic of anything beyond a sense of easy togetherness. Second only to the widescreen vistas are variations on lines like “Everyone’s examining their lives right now” or “Everyone feels more united.”
Rarely does it take an unsentimental look at differences forced upon its characters’ lives post-9/11, and perhaps that’s why it shifted to a more plainly pastoral approach (and title for what was originally known as September 12th). Mostly it ambles ever onward, with scant original songs to string it together and the best one (performed by Rubarth) cut short by her characters’ own insecurities.
Like the stars-and-stripes shades Elliott buys or a sparkler handed to Joni to light her way outside (when a lamp we’ve just seen in a long monologue would work just fine), American Folk ultimately offers little more than kitsch novelty. Even with such a gentle breeze, it’s a flag-waving fizzle.
American Folk is a Narrative Feature Finalist at the 2017 Heartland Film Festival and will be presented at:
- 7:45 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 19 at AMC Castleton Square 14
- 10:15 a.m., Friday, Oct. 20 at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
- 10:45 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 21 at AMC Castleton Square 14
- 3:45 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 22 at AMC Castleton Square 14
Tickets are available at http://heartlandfilm.org/festival/tickets/, by calling 1-866-HFF-1010 or at the box office at the time of the screening.
Director, writer and editor David Heinz will be in attendance at the festival.