Film Review: American Folk starring Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth

Whether you’re a fan of film or not, this little film American Folk starring Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth is a real treat. The film covers a snapshot of the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The storyline covers two strangers who meet by the fate of that day and end up taking a cross-country trip. I’ll spare the details here, but along the way they meet some real characters and share some wonderful music.

Of course the two stars shine brightly in the film, with Purdy’s subdued “Elliott” taking in all of the nuances of the moment. You can tell he’d rather just be writing and be left alone, but instead he’s out having to work. The whole experience takes him out of his comfort zone. Rubarth’s character comes across as a “girl next door” type, concerned for her mother’s health, yet with a persistent twinkle in her eye and spirit to revitalize folk music.

One of the best parts of the film is that it doesn’t develop all of the predictable tropes of a roadtrip film. Despite the two travelling essentially as a couple, it is not a love story. The palpable sense of companionship and love, though, is there and is a delight for the viewer to take in.

Obviously for the purposes of this site, the music steals the show. The first performance when Purdy leads and Rubarth joins in harmony feels like a real “moment” in the film. Others along the way emphasize the “power of music” and that does seem to be a central trope of the film. Watching people come together around singing, especially the types of old time American songs these two folk singers love, is a genuinely enjoyable part of the film.

There were some negative aspects along the way, too. Sometimes thematic elements felt a bit forced. It’s not clear whether the film wants to be nostalgic or progressive, whether it’s a call back to the way things used to be or a call forward to the way things ought to be. The overall arch of the film was good, but pockets of dialog along the way seemed a bit out of place.

My final “take” on the film is that it was best when Purdy and Rubarth had center stage with their music. The storytelling style they both have could have (and should have) told more of the story than the script itself. Storytelling and harmony are characters in and of themselves and they could have had a more prominent role here. That said, I did find the film emotionally moving. There are powerful moments that I could recall from my own life during September 11th and the days that followed. If you’re looking to hear a bunch of old folk music, this film will disappoint. However, if you’re looking for a modern tale of what America can be in her finest moments, this might be just the film for you.

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