Review: “American Folk” Sings, But Not Loud Enough
A ROAD TRIP POWERED BY MUSIC
Road trip movies have become a staple in American cinema. “Dumb & Dumber” taught us even the biggest idiots can make it across the states and “Thelma & Louise” taught us the power of friendship and how to live life to the fullest. “American Folk” has an influential message brewing beneath a love story and wonderful folk songs, but the message doesn’t leave a memorable mark that’ll resonate with audiences for a long time. To put it simply, “American Folk” is, in fact, about something more powerful than a journey from point A to point B, but the filmmakers trying too hard to deliver a “powerful” message stunts the journey altogether.
CINEMATICS (Cinematography, Acting, Plot, etc.) – 3
The leading star in “American Folk” is the cinematography. With the story taking place back in 2001, the tragedy of September 11th hits America and all airports are shut down. The two lead characters need to get back to the east coast as soon as possible, so they borrow a rundown van and travel from California to New York via the I-40. Having taken that very route twice in my life, I can vouch for its beauty. David Whetstone did a wonderful job capturing the “American Splendor” along the route, even in the semi-dreary-looking states like Arizona.
The film is a pretty picture to look at, and the soundtrack is just as good. With its recorded and live folk performances, the heart of this film truly lies in the music. The powerful message brewing beneath is everyone, even in times of peril and terror, can be unified through music and genuine kindness. It’s a very positive message that’s evident at every plot point and interaction the leads encounter. But as the film unravels, the expression of the message becomes too noticeable and predictable. So noticeable, the audience can predict when the main character is going to sing a song for a touching close on their most recent ordeal. Are the songs beautiful and is it wonderful to watch people come together through the power of music? Absolutely, but when the journey and the love story take a backseat to a film’s overall theme, then usually only a few memorable scenes keep the film afloat.
And there are a few in “American Folk.” The dinner scene in Tennessee/Virginia and when the leads meet Whitey at his trailer in the desert are quite good and show off the talent of the supporting cast. Their talent noticeably stands out because the main characters aren’t interesting. After an alluring opening act, it’s exciting to see two strangers head out on a journey. They make a plan while expressing their “dire need” to get to the east coast, yet… it never feels like they actually need to finish their journey. They quickly turn into passive characters while meeting all sorts of people across America and dealing with their unreliable van. Once in awhile the script keeps the plot alive by inserting a quick phone call or a reminder, but to say this film is story-driven and/or character-driven is difficult. It’s theme-driven, which will be tough for many audience members to find entertaining.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE – 2
I love a film that shows off the power of filmmaking’s technical elements, like “The Revenant” did so beautifully. But like the DiCaprio epic, “American Folk” turns downright boring and slow at times because not enough is actually happening. In this case, the story and characters are not interesting enough to keep an audience captivated. The cinematography and music are wonderful to experience, but without a good foundation for those to rest upon, the splendor of America quickly dwindles right after the road trip gets started.
Despite the few memorable scenes in the later sections of the film, there’s nothing else forcing me to suggest this film to anyone. It’s a film trying to make a statement about how we are all different as Americans, yet we can still be united. Doesn’t necessarily have to be through music, but in this case, it is. Is it a powerful message that’s important for people to understand? Yes, but a great ten-minute speech would hit the nail on the head better than “American Folk” did.
REWATCHABILITY – 1
I’m not going to watch the entire film again, but I will show people the dinner scene in Tennessee/Virginia. While it’s quite good, it’s also the perfect example of how supporting characters can pop when the main characters are forgettable.
- Entertainment Value
“American Folk” has an influential message brewing beneath a love story and wonderful folk songs, but the message doesn’t leave a memorable mark that’ll resonate with audiences for a long time. Despite having a few wonderful scenes, the passive lead characters and their journey across America are overshadowed by the film's theme. To put it simply, “American Folk” is, in fact, about something more powerful than a journey from point A to point B, but the filmmakers trying too hard to deliver a “powerful” message stunts the journey altogether.