Halsey Stuns SXSW in Acting Debut as Gun-Toting Ex-Cultist
This year’s SXSW Film & TV Festival opened with the premiere of Swarm, the dark tale of Dre (Dominique Fishback), a stan whose obsession with a Beyoncé-esque pop idol turns deadly. And the Prime Video series’ fourth episode treated audiences to a little surprise: Billie Eilish’s screen acting debut as Eva, the leader of a NXIVM-like cult whose indoctrination of Dre ends in disaster. Not to be outdone, Halsey’s entrée into the world of movies left the crowd at the Texas fest hooting and hollering.
In Tony Tost’s crime-western Americana, the singer is Mandy, a young woman whose jet-black shag hairdo and arms covered in tattoos screams Joan Jett. She hates herself for loving — or really, tolerating — her older boyfriend Dillon (Eric Dane), an area hitman with a bad temper. Mandy serves as a guardian of sorts to her “little brother” Cal (Gavin Maddox Bergman), who’s grown so unmoored from reality that he’s convinced himself he’s the reincarnation of Sitting Bull, wandering about in a Native headband armed with a bow and arrow.
One day, Mandy reaches her breaking point, bashing Dillon’s head with a hammer and stealing his wheels, promising she’ll return for Cal, who doesn’t seem to grasp the urgency of the situation. In the trunk of the car lies a Lakota ghost shirt, a sacred item thought to protect the wearer against bullets. This particular ghost shirt is worth half a million dollars, and is coveted by Native collectibles dealer Roy Lee Dean (Simon Rex); Ghost Eye (Zahn McClarnon), the leader of a group of Indigenous freedom fighters that see themselves as the Native Americans’ version of the Black Panthers; and Penny Jo Poplin (Sydney Sweeney) and Lefty Ledbetter (Paul Walter Hauser), a stuttering diner waitress with dreams of being the next Dolly Parton and a lovesick combat veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Told in five chapters and across multiple storylines, Tost’s first feature is an admirably weird and engaging odyssey that’s like Tarantino meets The Sugarland Express (with a healthy dose of Smokey and the Bandit). It’s brimming with ideas and winning turns, in particular Sweeney and Hauser, whose romantic chemistry is terribly endearing, and McClarnon as the deadpan-hilarious face of anti-colonialist vengeance. That Halsey more than holds her own amid such a talented cast is a good sign of what’s to come. Their performance doesn’t strike a false note, even when the story takes some unexpected twists and hairpin turns. And anyone who’s seen her music video work was already well-aware that the “Without Me” chanteuse can hold a close-up.
It was during the music video shoot for Halsey’s 2019 hit “Graveyard” that she met Sydney Sweeney, one of TV’s brightest young stars with roles in The Handmaid’s Tale, Euphoria, and The White Lotus. The two became fast friends, optioning Jessica Goodman’s YA novel They Wish They Were Us as a star vehicle for the duo (it’s currently in development at HBO Max), and sharing the screen in Americana.
All roads in Americana converge at Mandy’s childhood home: a remote, heavily-guarded compound presided over by her father, a Christian fundamentalist who operates a Warren Jeffs-like cult, trafficking his daughters — who don prairie dresses and are forbidden from wearing makeup — to random men. We now know why Mandy escaped, and why she’s had such a fraught relationship with Cal. The bullets soon fly, many of them fired by Halsey’s Mandy, as custody of the coveted ghost shirt becomes a matter of life or death.
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Sadly, Halsey couldn’t make it to SXSW due to travel issues. It’s too bad, because she likely missed out on a standing ovation.
Americana is an acquisition title that’s seeking distribution.