Sunday, July 14, 2024

“FANCY DANCE”

THE STORY – Following her sister’s disappearance, a Native American hustler kidnaps her niece from the child’s white grandparents and sets out for the state powwow in hopes of keeping what is left of their family intact.

THE CAST – Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Hauli Sioux Gray, Shea Whigham, Audrey Wasilewski & Ryan Begay

THE TEAM – Erica Tremblay (Director/Writer) & Miciana Alise (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes


Following a buzzy premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Erica Tremblay’s soulful “Fancy Dance” now has a theatrical home for a broader audience to discover. Tremblay’s narrative feature debut takes the viewer on a powerful journey that explores the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Co-written by Tremblay and Miciana Alise, the film balances bleak subject matter with grounded sensibility and a focus on familial relationships. The opening scene, a car theft quietly orchestrated by Aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone) and her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), conveys a strong unity between both characters. Living on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma, Jax and Roki fall in and out of each other’s favor as they navigate a heart-rending uncertainty about their family. Tawi (Hauli Sioux Gray), Jax’s sister and Roki’s mother, has gone missing. Stalled by indifference from local officers on the case, Jax traverses the roads to find Tawi before the annual state powwow.

Following her sister’s disappearance, Jax has been determined to maintain the role of Roki’s caregiver by all means necessary. But, when Child Protective Services arrives on the reservation and deems Jax unfit due to her unlawful past, Roki is removed from the home and re-housed with a white family – Roki’s grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham) and his wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski). Frank’s presence in Jax’s life has been scarce since his remarriage. Still, he uses dire circumstances – Tawi’s disappearance and the mounting legal pressure on Jax – to enforce his and Nancy’s version of what would be best for Roki, failing to understand why the powwow is so significant. A standout family dinner scene conveys where the couple stands on taking Roki to her first powwow and sheds interesting light on how Jax chooses to respond. Jax and Roki often speak the Cayuga language to each other at the table. However, Jax switches to English (“Maybe next year…”) when agreeing not to take Roki, putting on a front specifically for Frank to hear. But Jax’s true intentions can be felt; she surrounds Roki with an unspoken, reassuring glow and a deep understanding of what needs to be done. She knows how to put Roki’s mind at ease, even when her own mind is highly distressed. Jax’s perseverance is steered by an unwavering love for her niece and wanting to protect her identity from being lost. Taking matters into her own hands, Jax kidnaps Roki, and together they head for the powwow.

Jax and Roki’s relationship has an emotionally resonating rhythm to it. Jax takes quick, protective steps to shield Roki from harsh realities and constantly reassures her that everything will be okay once they reach the powwow. Roki moves with more innocence, optimism, and an increased sense of liberation when faced with challenging truths. Jax and Roki’s journey on the road together expands beyond the search for Tawi and breaks new ground in their relationship. The film gently builds tension around the fight to keep hope alive. The more Roki learns about what she is being protected from, the greater her determination to hold onto where she comes from. This drives both characters to the film’s powerful conclusion, an uplifting celebration of love and togetherness amidst the widespread issues Indigenous women face.

The film pivots from procedural storytelling to follow an open-hearted, authentic path of preserving Native American perspectives. In addition to depicting a missing person case, the story also sheds necessary light on the day-to-day inequities and lack of institutional support across Indigenous communities. From the obstacles faced by Jax’s half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay), an officer on the reservation, to the topic of re-housing Native children who have been removed from their reservations, the film explores how different systemic injustices impact families on a ground level. In their screenplay, Tremblay and Alise convey the collective grief of shared cultural experiences through detailed character interactions. The writing neatly frames this film with the special bond between an aunt and her niece. Merely by observing Jax and Roki’s relationship – which gets pulled in increasingly risky directions – the viewer is presented with the full scope of this story and its resonating themes at play. Also, the characterization of Jax ignites vital conversations around perspectives that often go under-represented on screen, from Jax’s queerness to the inclusion of sex workers and highlighting their significance in the community. With a terrific harmony in the writing and performances, the nuances of these characters shine.

From their breakout role as the smitten, lonely rancher Jamie in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” to their Oscar-nominated portrayal of Mollie Burkhart in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Gladstone is a once-in-a-generation talent who consistently raises the bar. They command the screen with a magnetic presence; you immediately want to know more about each of her characters and step into their worlds, and “Fancy Dance” is an outstanding testament. Much of the tension in this film rests on Gladstone’s shoulders, and one would be hard-pressed not to lean in fully. They make an unwavering emotional connection, especially in quieter moments when a single look can speak volumes about Jax’s frame of mind. Sharing the screen with Gladstone is an impressive Deroy-Olson, who carries a maturity beyond her years as Roki. From playfulness and joy to tensity and heartache, she balances the character’s coming-of-age with remarkable control. Her naturalistic chemistry with Gladstone helps to make their family dynamic feel lived-in and unique to them.

“Fancy Dance” is a confident narrative feature debut from Tremblay, whose stirring direction and writing find moments of calm between storms of injustice. Acts of violence are implied through the reactions among community members rather than explicitly shown on screen. This decision marks a shift in more distinctive storytelling, where the viewer is given time and space to connect deeper with the characters. Tremblay’s direction moves along to the music that each actor creates and finds strength in structuring the story around them. The film is especially impactful by building up to an unforgettable climax. Intense emotions trickle in throughout the story before they pour out in a particularly devastating moment, which prefaces a perfect ending. Uplifted by tremendous performances from Gladstone and Deroy-Olson, “Fancy Dance” is a stunning work of art in Indigenous storytelling that keeps the importance of community and culture at its core.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Tremendous performances from Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson, and confident direction from Erica Tremblay, shine a stirring light on preserving Native American perspectives.

THE BAD - While the second act contains powerful moments, the pacing can sometimes be rushed and uneven.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Actress

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>Tremendous performances from Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson, and confident direction from Erica Tremblay, shine a stirring light on preserving Native American perspectives.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>While the second act contains powerful moments, the pacing can sometimes be rushed and uneven.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actress/">Best Actress</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"FANCY DANCE"