By Ross Bembenek
Well, it finally happened. It took 13 screenings and the entire 10 days of the festival, but I finally watched my first real dud of the 2017 Heartland Film Festival on the final day of the festival. And oh boy, the dud gods sure came roaring in with a vengeance, because American Folk wasn’t just the worst film I watched at Heartland, it is the worst film that I’ve seen in all of 2017 (and yes, that includes the Netflix original Little Evil).
The premise is simple enough: two strangers meet on a plane that ends up grounded in the aftermath of 9/11. These two strangers, both folk musicians, end up going on a cross-country trek from Los Angeles to New York, bonding over the kindness of strangers and the power of music. Sounds simple, right? Well, nothing is really simple when you have horrible tone, pacing issues, bad acting, poorly written characters, and terrible cinematography. The end result is a jumbled mess, making this 90-minute film feel like an eternity.
Let’s start off with the simplest of my complaints about the film: the writing. Nothing in this film ever clicked for me. The two lead characters, Elliot and Joni, are so poorly written and one-dimensional that I never felt emotionally involved with either of them. Elliot is particularly bad, as he is the least sympathetic character with the weakest motivations of a protagonist that I’ve seen in a long time. The supporting cast is just as bad. Each supporting character is just an over-simplified caricature of a different “American” stereotype. On top of the poor characters, the film’s dialogue equally as poor. I couldn’t tell whether it was the script itself or the poor delivery of the actors, but I found myself cringing or holding back laughter during some of the most “serious” moments of the film.
In addition to the writing, the film also suffers heavily because it can never decide what tone it wants. Sometimes it is a serious melodrama, sometimes there are hints of a romance blooming between the two leads, and sometimes the film tries to be a comedy (with an emphasis on “tries” here, as I wouldn’t consider anything in this film to be funny). It’s okay for a film to flip back and forth between different genres, but American Folk simply tries to do too much in too short of a time with some of the poorest execution I can remember in a film.
Most of the time when I have serious problems with the writing or the tone of a film, I can usually say some nice things about the technical aspects of a film, such as the editing or the cinematography. I cannot do that with American Folk. Let’s start with the cinematography. It. Is. AWFUL. The framing is terrible, I saw several overexposed shots throughout, and HALF THE FILM IS OUT OF FOCUS. This drove me insane during the whole thing. The depth of field is so shallow that the smallest camera movement causes the subject to fall out of focus. The cinematography is worse than poorly done: it just looks lazy.
The editing is equally as atrocious. The film is basically broken up into a series of short segments taking place in different states as Joni and Elliot make their way east. You’d think that the editor would try and divide the runtime equally between certain regions, but you’d be wrong. The first 60 minutes of the film are solely dedicated to what happens to the two in New Mexico and Arizona, making those two segments feel extremely long and dull. This also makes the remaining 30 minutes feel rushed, as they try and fit in a handful of other states before the duo arrives in New York. It makes the film feel disjointed, causing the first two-thirds of the film to drag along for what felt like several hours.
I think it’s pretty obvious that I didn’t like this film. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert in his infamous review of Rob Reiner’s North: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” It is poorly written, directed, acted, shot, and edited. Just an all-around terrible experience. I would say it is bad on the level of The Room, but I think that would be an insult to The Room. At least when I watch Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic I have a good time instead of being left bored to death for an hour and a half.