This article is part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Follow along as we check out the films and filmmakers appearing at the first fest of the new year. In this entry, Rob Hunter reviews Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance.
The statistics on missing and murdered Indigenous women reveal sobering truths about the lack of urgency on the matter by authorities at nearly every level of government. It’s a slow motion tragedy hundreds of years in the making, and it’s an unavoidable truth that too little noise is being made about it beyond the voices of the people on the ground. One far-reaching exception has been the handful of feature films (Wind River, 2017), documentaries (Bring Her Home, 2022), and television shows (Alaska Daily, 2022) that choose to give the issue their spotlight. Some handle the topic better than others, and one of the more thoughtful and affecting examples is the new film, Fancy Dance.
Jax (Lily Gladstone) is a young Native American woman with a sketchy past and an uncertain future. She’s had troubles with the law over drug related offenses and her hustler (ie thieving) ways, but she’s doing what she needs to survive for both herself and her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). The teenager became her ward after Jax’s sister went missing, and she’s doing her best to keep Roki’s hope alive even as her own begins to dwindle. When state and federal authorities — the same ones doing little to nothing to find the missing woman — decide that Roki would be better served living with her white grandparents (Shea Whigham, Audrey Wasilewski), Jax takes Roki on one last road trip.
Fancy Dance is a soulful drama that avoids sugar coating the situation while still championing the spirit and will of young women in a lose-lose situation. It’s far from heartless, though, and in addition to highlighting the tender, tenacious love between an aunt and her niece, director/co-writer Erica Tremblay is wise enough to end her feature debut with a sequence celebrating that love rather than lamenting the sorrow destined to follow. There’s a general “indie drama” familiarity here, but the specifics of the story — along with Gladstone’s strong but heartbreaking performance — make for a film that sticks in your head and (hopefully) stirs your awareness.
The dance of the title is an annual powwow bringing together members of the Seneca Cayuga tribes. The dance itself isn’t the real objective, though, as instead it’s about being together whether it be in mourning or celebration. Roki believes her mom wouldn’t dream of missing the powwow’s mother/daughter dance, and Jax keeps that dream alive while desperately trying to move the needle on the search for her sister. Watching Gladstone balance her characters duelling motivations is more than just a masterclass in acting — it’s also a devastating collision between hope and despair that makes quick work of your heart. You already know she’s brilliant if you’ve seen her in films like Certain Women (2016) or shows like Reservation Dogs (2022), but she plays equally well off of a new talent like Deroy-Olson to the point that you wish their time together would never end.
The film, co-written by Miciana Alise, moves effortlessly between the pair’s bonding moments — a strawberry diner feast to celebrate Roki’s first period is especially charming — and Jax’s amateur detective moves. The former finds moments of real sweetness, and while the pair speak English in the presence of others, their time together sees them conversing in Cayuga. It feels like something of their own, a further tightening of their bond both as relatives and Native Americans. The latter puts her in occasionally precarious and dangerous positions lending the film an air of suspense at times, but it also drives home the frustrations with a system wholly uninterested in investing the time or effort into Native issues. Of course, when Jax and Roki hit the road an Amber Alert is issued, and an armed response is quickly assembled to return the girl to the nice white people.
Frank and Nancy aren’t necessarily the “bad” guys here — he’s their blood, and as the situation spins out of control Whigham becomes a broken man slowly crushed by the choices he’s made. Nancy, meanwhile, is trying her best even as it’s plain to see that her particular best isn’t nearly good enough as she tries to shape Roki into someone she’s not. It’s a tough role as Nancy is somewhat one-note as the white lady who just doesn’t get it, but Wasilewski finds the humanity within the conflict.
Fancy Dance ends on the happiest possible note and finds moments of relief and love along the way, but it’s not a happy film. We’re not left hopeful for Jax or for women like her sister, but in bringing light to the issue and highlighting the love that Jax feels for her, we can be optimistic for Roki’s future. When the end credits begin to roll and Teioswáthe’s song begins to play, just sit and listen. Then get off your ass and help raise awareness about the inexcusably high rate of missing and murdered indigenous women in the US and Canada.