American Folk

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
American Folk Movie Poster Image
Mild language in music-fueled 9/11 road-trip drama.
  • PG
  • 2018
  • 99 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The travelers often encounter kind strangers; compassion is a clear theme. The film is largely about the sense of national community formed in the wake of 9/11. There's a painful coming-out scene.

Positive Role Models & Representations

People are generally good and treat each other well. The main characters are both compassionate people who accept others for who they are. A painful coming-out scene involves a family member rejecting one of the women in a same-sex couple.


References to 9/11; the events of that day and the deaths it caused are acknowledged, but nothing graphic is shown.


A handful of uses of "s--t" and its variants, spoken in frustration.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The main characters get tipsy in a bar; they're driven home safely and don't do anything stupid.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Folk is played out against the backdrop of 9/11 occurring on the other side of the country. The events of that day and their impact play a significant role in the story -- and the resulting deaths are acknowledged -- but there are no graphic references or images. Other than that, expect a few uses of "s--t" and a scene in which the main characters get tipsy in a bar. This is a bittersweet road movie with music throughout (stars Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are real-life musicians) that may remind some viewers of Once. It has positive messages about the importance of compassion and the national sense of community following 9/11.

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What's the story?

In AMERICAN FOLK, Elliott and Joni (played by real-life singer-songwriters Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth) -- two strangers who turn out to be musicians -- are stranded in Los Angeles on 9/11. They take a road trip across America to make it back to New York, bonding over their shared love of music. Along the way, they encounter many kind strangers brought together in the sense of community that formed after the events of that tragic day.

Is it any good?

This good-hearted drama's almost naive view of the kindness of American strangers feels like a tonic for troubled times. American Folk feels patriotic in the gentlest way. It speaks to the resilience of the American character. It depicts people trying to avoid political discussions while coming together in the aftermath of 9/11. The film is mostly about the growing bond between Elliott and Joni, but the 9/11 backdrop is key to its fabric. It begins with a brief glimpse at the un-neighborly world of 9/10; after that, it visits town after town steeped in the national goodwill that followed the horror of that day (as opposed to the hate and vengefulness, which are seen only briefly here). It's an accidental road trip with music -- and purely American music at that. At its heart, American Folk is about music's power to unite. Its view of a changing America is certainly idealistic, with people seemingly always happy to help one another and open to one another's differences ... for the most part. It's also a pseudo-romance in the vein of Once: Don't expect neatly tied-up story threads. 

Rubarth's Joni is a good person with a big heart; she's quirky and life-loving without feeling forced. She's memorable. Purdy's performance as Elliott is a bit monochromatic, but he does enough -- especially when Elliott humbly stands up for a person coming out as gay to her family. That scene is lovely, beautifully acted all around, and emblematic of the film's tender urgency. Writer-director David Heinz takes his time allowing Elliott and Joni's relationship to develop, from standoffishness through the first fleeting touch and beyond. And when the two main characters play and sing together in natural, off-the-cuff harmony, it's an effective statement of their chemistry (again, à la Once). The movie's score and cinematography are notable, as is Heinz's judicious use of symbols, such as when a character uses a sparkler to light her way in the darkness.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how 9/11 is typically portrayed in movies. Rather than being a you-are-there drama, American Folk offers viewers a you-are-far-away-but-affected-anyway slice of life. What did that reveal to you about 9/11 that you didn't get from the news or more direct accounts?

  • What role does music play in the film -- both in the story and in the main characters' relationship? 

  • How does the movie show the importance of compassion? Why is that an important character strength?

  • How is drinking portrayed? Is it glamorized at all?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love music and drama

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