Ghost shirts, which are sacred to certain Indigenous communities, were thought to guard the wearer against bullets through spiritual power. This precious heirloom is at the center of Tony Tost’s directorial debut film at SXSW, Americana. This western dramedy has some tricks up its sleeve, thanks to the brilliant writing and the script’s comedic timing. It boasts a big cast of actors including Sydney Sweeney, Halsey, Paul Walter Hauser, Zahn McClarnon, Simon Rex, Eric Dane and Gavin Maddox Bergman.
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Cal (Bergman) loves to watch black-and-white, cowboys-and-Indians films. While he’s enthralled with what he sees on the television, Joan Jett lookalike Mandy (Halsey) and local thug Dillian (Dane) argue about why Cal, her brother, is so weird. Maybe it’s because he’s a white kid who claims to be the reincarnation of Lakota ancestor Sitting Bull. To get them away from Dillian’s abusive household, Mandy knocks him unconscious and grabs the keys to his car to escape, but her brother wants to stay because “his people need him.” She has no choice but to leave, claiming to return to him when things are financially stable. Finally waking up, Dillion grabs a gun to pursue his former girlfriend but finds her gone and Cal armed with a bow and arrow. He thinks this kid is joking when arrows start to fly, but he soon learns that this pretend Native American boy isn’t playing games.
Lefty Ledbetter (Hauser) recites his proposal speech for waitress Penny Jo Poplin (Sweeney) at the local diner. He plans to pop the question to his girlfriend of two weeks. The young woman tries to offer advice, but she struggles due to a stammer. From behind the counter, she notices a young man on a call writing something on a napkin and leaves the restaurant. Penny rushes over to read what it says — “Friday diner 4pm” with four dollar signs at the bottom. After meeting Lefty at a bar the same night, she convinces him to come to her job on the day of this meeting to eavesdrop to see what all the fuss is about. What they uncover is a heist plot among Dillion, Fun Dave (Joe Adler) and Roy Lee Dean (Rex) to steal a ghost shirt and sell it on the black market. With this new information, the duo strike a plot somehow to get the shirt and keep the money for themselves. However, that doesn’t go so smoothly once Ghost Eye (McClarnon) and the Indigenous community get involved. Trust me, this is all connected.
Americana is told out of order, but I didn’t realize that until the second act. Tost cleverly weaves this aspect into the story without making the tone feel disjointed. There are a lot of moving parts here. Mandy wants money for her family, Penny and Lefty want the money for themselves, Roy wants to keep the shirt as a collector’s item, and Ghost Eye wants to give it back to the people. Tost has painted an intricate picture full of twists, turns and intrigue that strikes the perfect mix of action, comedy and narrative that serves the western genre, as well as deconstructing it.
Cowboys are not the heroes of Americana; in fact, their society is condemned by the Indigenous and those overlooked by the world at large. There also is commentary regarding cultural appropriation and addressed by specific character actions and dialogue that proves Tost understood where to draw the line in his script to avoid being offensive for gags and laughs. He didn’t have to do that but found a smart way around it. I also was worried about the film committing the sin of “white saviorism,” like most western films do, but the script pulls the characters back from that, causing them to look at themselves and their actions. That’s what building good characterization is all about.
Tost’s direction manages to avoid the common pitfalls first-time directors encounter by overcomplicating things, but the director keeps it simple by letting characters work within their frame. All the dialogue and emotions come through clearly to the audience because people are the focus. This movie wouldn’t be what it is without its rich and enjoyable cast — with Halsey and McClarnon being the standouts — of individuals who are determined, intelligent, uproarious and have different ideas of success and how to achieve it. It’s a microcosmic snapshot of Americana life.
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Spotlight
Director-Screenwriter: Tony Tost
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Paul Walter Hauser, Halsey, Eric Dane, Zahn McClarnon, Gavin Maddox Bergman, Simon Rex, Derek Hinkey, Toby Huss, Harriet Sansom Harris
Running time: 1 hr 50 min