Strangers, thrown together for a cross-country road trip is how a thousand romantic comedies got their start.
In “American Folk,” they’re both singers, more compatible on the surface than most road comedy couples. Their genre? The vanishing strummed Americana of folk music.
But the kicker is the timing of this trip. The reason they’re driving from California to New York is their flight was canceled. All flights were canceled. Their quest, to sing their way across America and maybe find a connection comes during some of the nation’s darkest hours, the days immediately after 9/11.
Writer/director/editor David Heinz gives us a road picture of sweet anecdotes, kind encounters and little conflict, an America with its rough edges rubbed off. And indeed the country could seem that way in those hours and days right after Islamic terrorists attacked us. Without a little friction, though, your movie is going to flirt with nostalgia and sentimentality, as even a romance needs obstacles to overcome to work.
Singer/songwriter Joe Purdy plays Elliott, struggling to finish a song about “This Old Guitar,” apparently unaware that John Denver covered that territory with a song by that title back in the last century. He’s a bit of a grump, insulated from the world by his CD player and headphones on the plane.
It’s just his luck that Joni (singer/songwriter Amber Rubarth) sits next to him. She’s open-faced and open-hearted. When she unplugs his earphones to add a splitter so she can listen with him, it’s presumptuous in the extreme. She makes the gesture charming.
Their abrupt return to LA throws them together, first for a cab ride — the cabbie turns off his meter — then to the A-frame (a “Folk Music” house if ever there was one) where Joni was staying, and finally into an ancient Chevy van full of another and’s gear that they’ll drive to New York where he has a gig and she has a sickly mother.
He’s a professional, always picking away in the passenger’s seat. Her interest and talents only come to light when she starts singing along. She knows the same tunes, “Freight Train” to “Shenandoah.” She can play a little, too. Their duets are lovely, natural.
When an urchin in Arizona asks “Where’s your wife?” Elliott is flummoxed.
“She’s not my wife.”
“I don’t know.”
Heinz takes them on the blue highways, off the interstates, as Elliott and Joni experience their first van breakdown, their first duet, and their first fight (kind of forced into the story).
He’s most at home making the case for what folk music used to be, the music of American troubadours like Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and John Prine, played to appreciative crowds that joyfully sang along to songs everybody knew.
“It’s kinda not like that any more,” Elliott laments. Then we’ve got to “bring back the Folk,” Joni declares. “Stupid terrorists!”
But in this brief respite, when “everybody’s kind of looking out for each other,” we can’t help notice that none of their encounters, in filling stations and honky tonks, with a comically disturbed hermit veteran who fixes their car in the desert, has the usual culture clash built into it.
They can play a little country, because country music grew out of folk and blues, and that keeps the peace. Except keeping the peace isn’t necessary. They’re accepted, at face value. Now, if they’d been black folk singers or an inter-racial couple traveling the rural Southwest and South…
Heinz has to introduce a couple of bubbly gay hitchhikers (Miranda LaDawn Hill and Emma Thatcher), a sort of inter-racial Indigo Girls, on their way to Bristol, Va. to “come out” to one girl’s parents, to give the film any edge at all.
The filmmaker labels, in bold block letters, every state the trek passes through, but doesn’t take time for any detours to the musical Americana at his fingertips in New Mexico, Texas, Memphis or especially Bristol, the birthplace of country music.
And he’s so hellbent on defying rom-com expectations that he cheats the picture out of some of its heart. When one good ol’boy (named Fargo) tells Elliott, “You don’t marry that girl, I will,” that’s kind of how we feel.
Heinz set out to make a sort of Hillbilly “Once,” but he and his cast don’t have the knack for generating romantic longing, the yearning that should drive the picture, with the “Kinder, gentler America” post-9/11 as merely its backdrop.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements and language
Cast: Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, Krisha Fairchild, David Fine
Credits:Directed by, script by . A Good Deed Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:39