'American Folk': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2017

September 12th - still 1 -H 2017
Courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival
This land is indeed our land.

Real-life folk singers Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth portray musicians getting to know each other on a road trip in the days after 9/11.

Only a few films over the years have tried to dramatize events leading up to or following 9/11. September 12th takes a modest but effective approach to that national tragedy. The film centers on two folk singers who are trying to make it from Los Angeles to New York when all planes are grounded. So the film evolves into an unconventional road movie that turns out to be quietly affecting. Without name actors in the cast, the audience will be limited, but the film merits attention.

Elliott (Joe Purdy) is hoping to get to New York for a gig that he desperately needs. The opening scenes effectively establish his character as a frustrated, somewhat angry loner. When his next door neighbors at the motel where he is staying complain about his playing music, he responds defiantly. So when he meets Joni (Amber Rubarth) on the plane that is forced to return to Los Angeles, he is initially suspicious. Joni has more compelling personal reasons to return to New York; her mother is seriously ill. When a friend in Topanga Canyon lends her a van to drive cross country, Elliott reluctantly tags along.

The references to 9/11 are understated throughout the film. The presence of American flags at many of the places they stop is never belabored, but the sense of mourning comes through. And when Elliott and Joni finally reach Manhattan, the messages of grief left all over the city register forcefully.

The heart of the film, however, lies in the subtle celebration of the American locales they find on their road trip. First-time director David Heinz and cinematographer Devin Whetstone do a superb job of capturing the beauty of landscapes untouched by the terrorist attack. The filmmakers shot on the real locations in 14 states, and these add considerably to the movie’s impact. The encounters they have are not idealized. In one fascinating episode Elliott and Joni give a ride to a lesbian couple who are traveling home to come out to one girl’s parents. The parents turn out to be an interracial couple who are extremely conservative and hostile in their views of homosexuality, which offers a reminder (as if any were needed) of the uneven journey toward tolerance in so many pockets of the country.

There’s one problem with the movie, and it’s not a minor one. Folk singers Purdy and Rubarth are not experienced actors, and they don’t always hold the screen in the way that more seasoned players might. Purdy is a somewhat recessive, opaque presence on camera, and although Rubarth has a lovely singing voice, she too falters in some of the dramatic scenes. One can understand why the director wanted authentic folk singers to play the parts, and their musical performances are compelling, but he sacrificed something along the way. It obviously didn’t hurt La La Land that Damien Chazelle chose two charismatic actors who were not the most experienced singers and dancers.

There are some gifted players on view in supporting roles. Krisha Fairchild, who plays the title role in the indie fave, Krisha, has a telling cameo as the woman who lends her van to the travelers. And David Fine, who seems to be channeling Walter Brennan, is splendid as the suspicious old geezer who helps the main characters repair their van.

September 12th is far from a perfect movie, but its visual flair and heartfelt homage to American folk music keep us engrossed.

Cast: Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, Krisha Fairchild, David Fine, Miranda Hill, Emma Thatcher

Director-screenwriter-editor: David Heinz

Producers: Matt Miller, Fiona Walsh

Executive producers: Steve Cho, Michael Heinz, Aaron Downing, Derek Sivers, Dave Pappas

Director of photography: Devin Whetstone

Production designer: Marie Jach

Music: Ben Lovett, Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth

No rating, 95 minutes