Editor David Heinz makes his feature directorial debut with the affable music movie “American Folk,” which he also wrote. The film follows two musicians making their way cross-country from Los Angeles to New York after their flight is grounded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Films that use the 2001 attacks as a framing device can often feel phony — exploiting a tragedy as a plot contrivance — but “American Folk” capably sidesteps that, with a willingness to honestly explore the collective emotional state in the days after the events, filtered through the lens of folk music.
Heinz cast folk musicians Amber Rubarth and Joe Purdy as Joni and Elliott, a couple of strangers who find themselves thrown together by circumstance. When their flight is canceled, they hop into a questionable van to make the trip. Along the way, they encounter memorable characters and their life stories, discover an ability to harmonize beautifully, and decide that their mission during these special few days is to “bring back the folk.”
The terrorist attack is a constant presence in their journey, a thrum of anxiety: cable news on a bar TV, a phone call that doesn’t go through, the newly loaded meaning of novelty American flag sunglasses. It shapes the story but doesn’t define it — the characters do. The songs are lovely, and the first-time actors give performances that grow warmer as the film progresses, and their characters release, relax and find a groove, if only for this moment in time.
Rated: PG for thematic elements and language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills