American Folk


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

American Folk
"Serves of a reminder of what America can be at its best."

This is an important day for Elliott (Joe Purdy). He's flying from Los Angeles to New York to play with a folk band of some repute, and he might get to do something with his own songs, shy though he is about them. Joni (Amber Rubarth) isn't doing anything that exciting; she's returning from a wedding to attend to her usual job of caring for her ailing mother. They're sitting side by side on a plane when there's a sudden announcement. They've been ordered to land. A further announcement will be made as soon as possible.

The is the 11th of September, 2001.

Copy picture

Everything is crazy. Elliot and Joni are strangers but stick together all the same, having no-one else to turn to. In the first of many selfless acts we'll see during the film, reminding viewers of the best of that day, a cab driver gives them a free ride to Joni's friend's house. There they watch television, stunned. Joni is worried sick about her mother being alone, and phone calls aren't getting through. So she is offered the use of a long neglected van which used to be used for folk gigs. If they drive it well, she and Elliot can get across the country in four days.

It's never quite that simple. The van shows its age, unable to achieve freeway speeds without the engine overheating, so they resort to taking back roads through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland, up to New York. It's a route that takes in several different strains of American culture, something not without risk for our cheerfully liberal young heroes, but what has just happened has put everybody is a reflective mood, with the result that we see the best of people. This isn't approached naively - a single scene near the end has a black man explain what he has to endure and hints at that other post-9/11 experience that most white people were spared - but it serves of a reminder of what America can be at its best.

Through this, there's the bickering and frustration you'd expect between Joni and Elliott, but there's also a transition from strangers supporting one another to friendship. The film eschews traditional romantic dynamics to develop something that is more convincing and feels, in context, more important. It's a testament to every friendship founded in adversity, in a film that's all about trust and what can happen when we let our barriers down.

Through all this, there's the music - traditional folk ballads and fresh reworkings of old ideas, positioned as one of the few things that is truly American rather than regional in focus. though she doesn't share Elliott's ambition, Joni plays impressive folk guitar, and music provides a means for them to connect in the most difficult moments of the journey, as well as a way to find common ground with strangers encountered in diverse circumstances. It's a unifying factor in a tour of different experiences of being American. The gentleness of the protagonists keeps the obnoxious elements of the tourist at bay but never makes them boring. Even supporting characters are carefully crafted and the acting is strong all round, inviting viewers to let go of their habitual cynicism and open up to the story themselves.

A simple story, beautifully told, American Folk is a timely reminder of a dream not yet dead.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2018
Share this with others on...
American Folk packshot
Two strangers, both folk musicians stranded in California, take a road trip to New York in the days after 9/11.

Director: David Heinz

Writer: David Heinz

Starring: Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, Krisha Fairchild

Year: 2017

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US


Search database: