In plot terms a “Once”-over less lightly, “American Folk” is a modest enterprise that revolves around two musicians who’ve got more on their minds than mutual attraction, yet the film belatedly emerges as one of the stronger fictional statements on 9/11. Its protagonists, driving cross-country during the cessation of air travel immediately following the Twin Towers attack, are merely distant bystanders to major events. But their journey winds up taking the pulse of America in a moment of shellshocked unity that now seems more remote than the terrorist plot itself. Understatedly moving, with lots of good music, David Heinz’s pleasing indie, starring two real-life singer-songwriters, merits the critical leg-up it will need to gain a commercial foothold beyond the festival circuit.
We meet Elliott (Joe Purdy), a genuine talent hobbled by a lack of people skills, in an unpleasant hotel room, where he’s staying before flying to New York City. A manager’s call makes clear that the city holds his likely last chance: He’ll be playing with hot new group the Hairpin Triggers, a shotgun artistic marriage he doesn’t relish but can no longer afford to turn down.
On the plane, seat mate Joni (Amber Rubarth) is friendlier than he’s inclined to be in return. But the two are thrown together again when the flight has to abruptly turn around and re-land in L.A. At a pitstop at her Aunt Scottie’s (Krisha Fairchild from last year’s “Krisha”), they absorb news of the three crashed aircrafts out East, and the likelihood that planes will be grounded for some time.
Joni, who’d flown to L.A. for a wedding, urgently needs to get back to New York to relieve her ailing mother’s none-too-reliable substitute caregiver; Elliott can only be so late for his new gig. Conveniently, Aunt Scottie has a 1972 Chevy van from her hippie days gathering dust in the driveway. So the two strangers, caught up in the solidarity of crisis, take off across country together. The aged van can’t go too fast without overheating, which means they have to travel on more picturesque secondary roads.
Their rushed partnership soon begins to strain, primarily because Elliott is a taciturn introvert and Joni a slightly pushy extrovert. Just when it seems they’d be better off separating, however, they find a means of harmony — quite literally. She returns to the vehicle at a rest stop to hear him pick out “Red River Valley” on his guitar and, while she’s no professional performer, she chimes in so seamlessly that they clearly make a ready-made vocal duo. Discovering they share overlapping tastes in classic Americana folk, the trip smooths out on a cushion of song.
Automobile trouble lands them in the hands of a desert hermit Vietnam vet-cum-mechanic played by David Fine, who walks away with his section of the film. Later they pick up a San Francisco lesbian couple (Miranda Hill, Emma Thatcher) hitchhiking to visit family. Other encounters on the road are more fleeting. But all reflect the heightened civility and empathy that rose in 9/11’s aftermath, before the rhythms of everyday life slowly returned and partisan politics began dividing the U.S. populace more than ever.
Heinz’s script wisely avoids melodrama and preachiness, with the biggest confrontation (a dining-room reunion in a conservative Virginia household) gracefully cut short before it can explode, the necessary points made by inference rather than on-the-nose dialogue. Titles announce the 14 or so states the protags pass through, and all design contributions —particularly DP Devin Whetstone’s widescreen lensing, which makes judicious use of aerial shots — flavorfully evoke an off-grid U.S. that seems timeless (and/or forgotten), without straying into nostalgic idealization.
Leads Purdy and Rubarth each sing some of their own appealing original songs, along with a few folkie classics, while the soundtrack offers vintage cuts by Pete Seeger, John Prine and Kitty Wells. Though “American Folk” (which was titled “September 12th” in its Santa Barbara Festival debut earlier this year) will inevitably invite “Once” comparisons for its central dynamic, romantic tension is more an undercurrent here than the main thread it was in that wispier Irish sleeper.
Heinz, demonstrating considerable assurance in his feature directorial bow, makes good use of the chemistry between the two musicians (both effective as actors), but resists the temptation to go further — just as they do, being strangers in awkwardly intimate circumstances who have bigger things to worry about.