One of the greatest failings of the US government has been that until the last few years there had been no official database of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, when there was crime data being collected for every other demographic. They have been socially, economically, and politically marginalised since the moment white colonialists first stepped foot on US soil, and it still continues. While the Biden administration has undoubtably been better on the issue than previous US governments, there continues to be an epidemic of violence. Fancy Dance uses this as the backdrop to a very human family drama, which is splashed together with a crime story.
Tawi (Hauli Gray) vanishes one day on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. Her precocious daughter Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) has been living on and off with her aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone), a 30-something queer woman who is a pretty seasoned scammer—nothing too egregious, some petty theft and drug-dealing, just enough to keep her and her niece’s heads above water. Roki herself has learned many of her tricks. Jax reports her sister’s disappearance to the local Native American police and the FBI, and soon enough Childrens Services are on Jax’s case and eventually remove Roki from her custody because of her aunt’s criminal record.
The film uses a well-worn crime-film trope, where Jax ends up kidnapping Roki from her court-mandated guardians—Jax’s estranged white father Frank (Shea Whigham) and his wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski). They aren’t portrayed as terrible people by any means, and do genuinely want what’s best Roki, but Frank’s actions end up causing more trouble for the two. Roki is interested in finding her mother, but is more interested in the upcoming powwow, where there will be a mother-daughter dance.
Erica Tremblay directs the film from a script she co-wrote with Miciana Alise (who is the film’s credited make-up artist). While it’s her feature narrative directorial debut, it’s anything but the work of an unseasoned filmmaker. Tremblay has directed on the TV show Reservation Dogs, wrote episodes of Dark Winds, and directed short films and feature length documentaries. Tremblay is from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation and also a queer woman, so she knows the world depicted intimately. For instance, if an outside filmmaker came in, they would do all the lazy shots of “look how pretty the prairies are, oh there’s a river,” but Trembley shows the reality for those on reservations: the crappy mobile homes they live in, the strip malls, and the gas stations the two steal from.
Lily Gladstone isn’t a household name quite yet, but if you’ve seen Oregon-based filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s last two films, First Cow and Certain Women, you will recognise her. She is the female lead in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, so naturally her profile will increase by the end of the year—which should hopefully rub off on Fancy Dance, because it’s a film that should be seen by a wide audience. Gladstone has a real likability as a actress, which helps you connect to the character even if they are doing something some could see as the opposite of right. Isabel Deroy-Olson has a real strength to her performance that makes her believable when she is resisting condescension from the adults around her. It’s one of the best juvenile performances in a long time, she holds her own against the accomplished actors she is acting alongside. Shea Whigham is one of the most reliable character actors alive and, much like in another film at Sundance this year, Eileen, does exactly what is required of him and does it well.
Hopefully Fancy Dance will get the release it deserves. On paper it might be a tricky sell, but it’s full of life, heart, and even a few crime genre thrills to get the film moving. The film’s final scene might leave some unsatisfied: it certainly takes a note from the Kelly Reichardt school of filmmaking, where it’s overly ambiguous for it’s own good. However, despite the ambiguity it gives the film a sense of celebration and joy in the culture that’s depicted, and for me it ends up being a satisfying ending.