There are few movie genres with as close a relationship with the concept of “Americana” as the Western. This is a genre deeply steeped in the history of American cinema, but one rife with as many highs as it has problematic lows. For every revolutionary and complex idea, there is a racist trope that has been intricately connected to the genre for decades; for every nuanced character, there is a broad and problematic one.
It is this legacy, the good and the bad, that writer and director Tony Tost wrestles with in “Americana,” a film that plays out like an early Tarantino movie directed by the Coen brothers, while never feeling derivative of either of the filmmakers. Tost’s film is charming, gritty, and all-round entertaining one that boasts gallows humor, compelling performances, and a big heart (plus lots of actual hearts being shot at and stabbed). Tost’s feature directorial debut shows confidence and an ability to weave the personal with the universal.
Like “Pulp Fiction,” Tost splits his story into chapters, which he arranges out of order. We start with the tale of Cal (Gavin Maddox Bergman) and his mom Mandy (Halsey), who live in a trailer park with Mandy’s abusive partner and try to find a better life, while Cal struggles with his own identity — this very white kid is convinced he is the reincarnation of Sitting Bull.
Later, we switch locations and meet Lefty Ledbetter (Paul Walter Hauser) and waitress and aspiring actress Penny Jo (Sydney Sweeney), who have fantastic chemistry that feels spontaneous and natural. There’s also a host of other characters all in their own contained lives, played by the likes of Simon Rex, Zahn McClarnon, and Eric Dane.
These characters would normally never even hear about each other, but their stories all collide in a violent way when they find themselves in pursuit of a legendary Lakota Ghost Shirt, believed to grant power, fortune, or freedom to its wearer — or a lot of money to whoever sells it.
Tost creates a believable world that can fit these different storylines and engage the audience with them before diverting to the next one, then the next one. Like “Pulp Fiction,” and the best of the early Coen brothers movies, Tost’s script allows the characters to drive the narrative and to make the world of the film feel lived in. He invites you to experience their stories at their most intimate, before bringing them to wackier, very violent places, at which point you are already invested not just in the heist, but in the different parties involved.
Taking clear inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express,” Tost’s characters border on archetypes, but still show a lot of nuance, making each character represent something bigger, and broader to the genre as a whole, while still having nuanced motivations and flaws. It’s a delight to see the puzzle pieces finally fall into place, with characters that have vastly different motivations suddenly clashing against each other.
To sell the twists and turns of the story, Tost assembled a phenomenal cast, each actor delivering something unique. Whether it’s Bergman getting away with most of the bigger laughs while clearly showing a more vulnerable side to his character, or Hauser giving us a humble, unambitious but extremely kind and well-meaning farmer, it is a joy to simply watch these performers at work.
And yet, the clear standout is Halsey, in her feature acting debut. The singer-turned-actor infuses Mandy with a hunger for a better life that clearly comes from a painful past, communicating much with very little and playing off her co-stars to hilarious results.
At its heart, “Americana” is an exploration of the Western and its legacy. The film constantly teases tired tropes and archetypes, only to flip them on their head for comedic purposes, taking the expectations of what a Western is supposed to be, then showing how that would or would not fly in 2023, like the depiction of cowboys and Native Americans in these films.
And yet, Tost is clearly approaching this from a place of love, as the film is clearly a homage to the genre and all its sides, both good and bad. The director shoots the vast arid landscapes and secluded rural roads of middle America with a melancholic eye, capturing the iconography of the genre while contemplating whether it still has a place in cinema today. With a film like this now in its arsenal, it surely does.
“Americana” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.