Nearly 17 years later, it’s still a risky move to feature the terrorist attacks of September 11 in a movie. They’re too momentous, too sacred to our culture for them to be mentioned casually or nonchalantly. Films that have used them incidentally (e.g. Allen Coulter’s Remember Me ) or intrinsically (e.g. Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close ) have fared equally terribly in the court of public opinion. But this didn’t stop David Heinz’s from taking a very oblique approach to those tragedies with his understated yet powerful American Folk (2017), a film about two folk musicians stranded in California during the attacks. Elliott (Joe Purdy), a struggling folk musician, desperately needs to make it to New York City for a badly needed gig. Joni (Amber Rubarth) has a dying mother just outside the city. The two meet that fateful Tuesday morning on a flight that’s quickly grounded shortly after takeoff. Following a hasty taxi ride, the two strangers end up at the door of Joni’s friend Scotti (Krisha Fairchild) who lends them her ratty 1972 Chevy Van for a cross-country drive. Over the next few days the two bond, fight, and maybe even fall in love as they slowly come to terms with America’s national trauma.
American Folk could have been an interminably sappy piece of melodrama, but instead it favors a more understated approach. We never see footage of the attacks. We hear news reports and presidential addresses on televisions and radios, but Heinz orients them in such a way that they seem like disassociated voices detached from Elliott and Joni’s reality. Some might be turned off by the random acts of patriotic kindness they encounter along the way—taxi cab drivers waiving their fares, convenience store owners giving out free American flags—but as somebody who vividly remembers the attacks and their aftermath, they’re perfectly appropriate and accurate. And though the film was shot on-location in 14 states, the emotional landscape of the country is given more attention than the geographic one. Some people are shell-shocked, other seem energized by spontaneous demonstrations of national unity and patriotism; some seem committed to helping their fellow man, others are already chomping at the bit for military retaliation. Heinz allows occasional diversions from the main story to explore the lives of some of the people Elliott and Joni encounter. A watery-eyed Vietnam vet named Dale (David Fine) gives their van a tune-up and philosophizes on the power of music to bring people together. A biracial hitchhiking lesbian from San Francisco has a difficult coming-out to her parents. A campground somewhere on the east coast erupts in a bacchanalia of goodwill and communal hope.
Then, of course, there’s the music. Both Purdy and Rubarth are professional musicians, and however underacted their performances might be they make up for it with the earnestness of their music. They first bond while on the highways of the Mojave Desert by singing that most melancholy of American folk songs, the Red River Valley. Gas refills and tune-ups are occasions to break out the guitars and fingerpick their confused feelings towards their lives, their country, and their relationship. Thinking back, I’m astounded to realize that there’s relatively less music in this film than one would expect of a movie about musicians using music to cope with tragedy. But that’s because Heinze realizes music is just a tool for recovery. And if you focus solely on the tools you lose sight of the project.
American Folk didn’t have to be good. Instead Heinz delivered a gentle yet nuanced exploration of America and Americans in one of our darkest hours.