‘Fancy Dance’ review: Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson shine in an uplifting Indigenous story | Sundance
Stories that deal with serious subjects don’t always have to be entirely serious. Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance is a winning example. Its inspiration is a tribute to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, but it often plays more like a buddy comedy. In a deliberate effort to avoid trauma porn and ground what Tremblay emphasizes is an important conversation in love, she has made a warm picture of a relationship built on a life spent together and a common understanding of culture.
In the film’s opening scene, Jax (Lily Gladstone) undresses in front of a fisherman so that Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) can steal his car keys. This kind of petty theft is a common activity for this aunt and her niece, and there’s a certain amusing rhythm to it. When they pull up to a gas station, they wordlessly switch the pumps between neighboring bays, so that the next unassuming customer will believe he is filling his own tank while the women are actually filling their own at his expense. They are both quite good at it, and though it’s done mostly out of financial necessity, they seem to enjoy partaking in this shared pastime.
The reason that Jax and Roki spend so much time together is that Jax’s sister Tawi has gone missing. Jax goes around the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma and the surrounding area showing people a poster with her sister’s face on it, and most either deny having seen anything or express that Tawi will likely soon return as she always does. While the thirteen-year-old Roki is convinced her mother will return in time for the upcoming powwow, Jax believes that something is seriously wrong. Jax’s half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay) is a member of law enforcement and is also worried, but he knows that, if she is truly missing, it will be nearly impossible to find her.
Fancy Dance showcases the disturbing frequency with which indigenous women disappear in America and are never located. In a conversation with her father, Frank (Shea Whigham), Jax highlights the difference between him calling the FBI to follow up on the progress on the search and her calling. His response is that he can’t help that he’s white, but as the father of two Native children, he understands that line, something that comes into play when he and his wife are assigned custody of Roki due to Jax’s criminal record. Jax knows that this is reality, and as JJ reminds her, pushing for answers isn’t likely to lead her anywhere good.
Jax is equally committed to finding her sister and to protecting her niece in her absence. There is a closeness that Jax and Roki have that makes it easy to forget that Roki is only thirteen years old. Since Tawi is already missing at the start of the film, there is no context for what Jax and Roki were like with her in their lives, and viewed are forced to assume that Tawi and Jax must be similar people. The choice to not feature establishing flashbacks with Tawi is ultimately productive because her legacy hangs over the film and influences both important women in her life as they grow even closer without her there.
The film’s enduring story of familial love is enhanced considerably by outstanding turns from its two leads. Gladstone is sarcastic and direct, making Jax a persistent personality who might be appreciated by her peers only if she’s in a good mood. In her feature film debut, Deroy-Olson brings a delightful spark to Roki, who is aware of her age but also how much she can get away with because people underestimate her. Their banter is witty, and they’re able to communicate easily and quickly without those around then catching on to what they’re saying. The film works best when it feels like a caper and that only Jax and Roki exist in the world. Its transitions to more upsetting material are well-crafted and feel natural, reminding audiences that the world is unfortunately bigger than the comfort their relationship can provide. Tremblay has crafted a film that shines an important spotlight on a destructive phenomenon that has persisted for far too long and folds it into a heartfelt tale of family and devotion.
Fancy Dance is screening in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute