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‘American Folk,’ a post-9/11 road trip



Washington Post
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Set in the immediate, hazy aftermath of 9/11, American Folk is an unlikely fusion of road trip and musical – a travelogue dotted with folk songs, some traditional, some not. Sung mainly by real-life folk musicians Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth, the songs lend the film an emotional resonance that the forced dialogue often struggles to achieve.

After their flight from Los Angeles to New York is grounded, two strangers, Elliott (Purdy) – who’s heading to a gig – and Joni (Rubarth) – rushing back to care for her ailing mother – head out in a beat-up van borrowed from Joni’s aunt (Krisha Fairchild). It’s adorned with the signatures of many travelers, along with the phrase “This machine kills fascists” (the same motto Woody Guthrie once placed on his guitar).

The backstory of Joni’s mother is conveyed by generic flashbacks that feel as if they were pulled from stock footage of eldercare. Although filmmaker David Heinz has created a promising premise, the first-time writer-director often diminishes the sense of freewheeling wonder with contrivances and clunky exchanges that thwart the organic narrative. It’s not until Rubarth joins Purdy in singing the folk standard “Red River Valley,” during a stop in Arizona, that any depth of character is revealed.

Shortly after that, when the van overheats in New Mexico, Joni sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” while leaning on the front bumper as the engine steams just behind her. As she does, Fargo (Paul White), a man with a bald, tattooed head, emerges from a nearby vehicle to harmonize with her, in a crooning bass.

Putting aside the painfully obvious song choice, the moment is awkward, because the film hasn’t established the rules of how singing and dialogue interact. At the same time, what they share in those few musical seconds is more meaningful than their ensuing conversation, which contains such heavy-handed phrases as “He can fix nearly anything, but he can’t pull himself out of the dunes” – said about the reclusive Vietnam vet, Dale (David Fine), whom Fargo recommends to fix their engine.

Elliott and Joni end up spending the evening with Dale in his trailer, bartering songs and a home-cooked meal in exchange for his handiwork. (Joni sings “New York,” an original written by Rubarth that evokes the feeling of the world moving on without you.) Fine, whose character has been cocooned in self-imposed exile for so long that it suits him, unearths Fargo’s vulnerable side, evoking an unhinged quality via a performance that’s zany and naturalistic.

Another great moment takes place during the film’s opening, when Elliott – stringing together, late one night, a quiet song of beaten-down defeat – is angrily shouted down by a neighbor in an adjacent hotel room. It’s a jarring and funny beat, and its dark humor could have been used to express both the sense of destabilization and unity that came out of that fateful day.

Instead, we’re given lines like this: “All I’m examining is the bottom of this glass right now,” uttered by Elliott to Joni over a glass of whiskey.

To his credit, Heinz leaves their relationship hovering in a state of unresolved potential. If only more of the movie’s scenes were like that: left to play out naturally, without the need to hammer home a theme of coming together. That version of American Folk might have ignited something true, something that actually shows how community can be found in the unlikeliest of places.