David Heinz's film,American Folk, which screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival last year and opens Friday at Tower City, is a movie about "the kindness of strangers and the power of music," themes you aren't likely to forget or escape during your viewing. It can be thought of as a low-rent, domestic Once, and it sometimes feels less like a movie than a set of Instagram stories set to bluegrass standards.
Our protagonists are Elliott and Joni, played by the real-life musicians Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth. Both find themselves stranded in Los Angeles when their airplane returns to LAX for an emergency landing due to the 9/11 attacks. Both are wanted urgently in New York. Joni has been in L.A. for a wedding and needs to get back to an ailing mother. Elliott is a struggling musician and needs to get back for a gig. He's been given a last-chance opportunity to play with a band known chiefly for their costumes.
Joni's aunt or family friend Scottie (Krisha Fairchild) lends these two woebegone late-twentysomethings — neither of whom appear to have any luggage whatsoever, beyond Elliott's acoustic guitar — a rusty old yellow tour van, complete with gear, to make the cross-country journey by road. "Do you really want to get on a plane right now?" Scottie asks, surveying the California sky.
Premise thus established, Elliott and Joni traverse the United States, listening to George W. Bush and harried reports of the aftermath in New York City on the radio. Things are tense at first. Joni falls asleep somewhere in Arizona and Elliott, (who was also asleep!) asks to be dropped off. He says he'll find an airport and take a plane. But then Joni emerges from a gas station bathroom to find Elliott serenely strumming "Red River Valley" in the back of the van. She approaches quietly and enters in perfect harmony for the second verse. (Scottie teased the fact that Joni had "the voice of an angel.")
Much like Once's "Falling Slowly," this is their moment of connection. Elliott and Joni are then playing music or talking about music almost non-stop. The trip itself is inscribed with a new mission: to "bring back the folk," as Joni says, which she interprets as enjoining Americans, during this time of tragedy, to sing together as they once did. Or something.
It's an earnest premise, but poorly rendered. Heinz is so eager to keep showing us "the kindness of strangers and the power of music" that every interaction is brimming with unbearable sap. At a gas station, Joni sees that the man working the register is either Latino or Arab. She regards him with suspicion. But lo! He sprints from the register as she's leaving, telling her that she paid an extra dollar! And he gives her a free little American flag to boot! "From one American to another." In the Arizona dunes, a haggard Vietnam vet named Whitey recounts a weird story about a foiled assassination attempt on Pete Seeger and then literally repeats "the power of music" five or six times. What? It's almost as bad as the movie's worst and weirdest scene: a Tennessee breakfast with a hitchhiking lesbian's parents, during which the hitchhiking lesbian comes out. When Joni leans to Elliott and says, "maybe we should leave," we are all the father, who regards them with disgust and says: "You really should."
It's a shame, because I would've been all about a folksy Once-style movie with the same exact premise, minus the post-9/11 togetherness moralizing. Purdy and Rubarth are vibrant musicians — better singers than actors, at any rate — and it would've been fun to hear more than fragments of two original songs.