Sundance Film Review: Fancy Dance
Sundance Film Festival
Director: Erica Tremblay
While Lily Gladstone might not be a household name—yet—she’s a talent known to many indie film fans, and the contemporary western Fancy Dance is a terrific vehicle for her commanding presence.
In Fancy Dance, Gladstone plays Jax, an Indigenous woman living on the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma who finds herself abruptly becoming both an amateur sleuth and surrogate parent when her sister, Tawi, goes missing. The only thing that is more important to Jax than finding her sister is caring for her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), a budding young woman who is excitedly preparing for the upcoming powwow, an event she dances at every year with her mother.
Roki is under the impression that her mother is going to be at the powwow, and Jax encourages this belief out of one corner of her mouth while asking every stranger she sees if they’ve seen Tawi out of the other. When a background check reveals that Jax has a prior conviction for selling drugs, Roki is removed from her care and placed with Jax and Tawi’s father, Frank (Shea Whigham), and his second wife, Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski). Determined to find Tawi and get Roki to the powwow on time, Jax takes her niece and hits the road, intent on solving the mystery and setting everything right.
Fancy Dance is a modestly budgeted film that easily makes up for its lack of spectacular money shots and glossy Hollywood flair with an engrossing story, strong, believable characters and a richly drawn look at a part of North America that gets far too little representation in the movies. There’s no contrived white outsider character inserted into Fancy Dance to ease the uninitiated into Seneca-Cayuga culture or life on a Reservation..
Director Erica Tremblay, along with her co-writer, Miciana Alise, refuse to condescend to their audience. Assuming the audience is smart enough to follow a story outside their own experiences, they create a film that takes very little effort to pick up everything needed to follow the plot. Fancy Dance deals bluntly with the weighty subject matter of a broken justice system that allows thousands of Indigenous women to remain missing while more are lost every day, yet it does so without pummeling us with heavy-handed speeches or lecturing.
Gladstone and Deroy-Olson are terrific, and the dynamic between them anchors the film. While the rest of the cast gives capable support, the film decidedly belongs to these two. Tremblay keeps things moving without ever giving in to the urge to turn the movie into too much of an action-thriller, letting the intensity and danger of the situation remain palpable while keeping it real. While some of the final section feels a little choppy, it builds to a moving finale. Fancy Dance is memorable precisely because it’s honest. Tremblay’s poignant film stands as both a cry for help for the victimized and missing and a defiant cry of strength from those who refuse to stop looking for them. –Patrick Gibbs
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