Sundance 2023 Film Review: Fancy Dance ★★★★

Queer Native American filmmaker Erica Tremblay returns to Sundance following 2020’s Grand Jury Prize nominated short Little Chief, with her poignant directorial narrative feature debut (co-written with Miciana Alise), Fancy Dance. Executive produced by Bird Runningwater, Charlotte Koh, and Forest Whitaker, the film received its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition at this year’s festival, and the project was developed with support from various Sundance initiatives including the Screenwriters Lab, Directors Lab, Creative Producing Lab, and Indigenous Intensive.

On the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, 13-year-old Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) is living with her tough but loving aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone), helping her to steal whatever comes their way—from fishing tackle to vehicles—in order to make ends meet. They then trade the items in for cash with the hunky, if rather unsavory local drug dealer Boo (Blayne Allen). It’s been two weeks since the disappearance of Tawi (Roki’s mother, and Jax’s sister), but the authorities don’t appear to be doing much to help find her, with Jax’s persistent calls to the state police dismissed or met with bureaucratic roadblocks. Meanwhile, her res Sheriff brother, JJ (Ryan Begay), is also hampered by jurisdictional red tape, but will prove infinitely more effective than the FBI when finally taking matters into his own hands.

Desperate for answers, Jax finds herself in increasingly threatening situations as she tries to uncover her sister’s last known steps, with Tremblay skillfully building the tension. Jax shows almost everyone she encounters her sister’s image on the missing notices she carries with her but, heartbreakingly, can’t bring herself to call out her name with the rest of the search party, as elder Mary (Casey Camp-Horinek) implores her to. At the strip club where Tawi ordinarily works, Jax is still fixated on discovering her sister’s whereabouts when she spends some time with charismatic dancer Sapphire (Crystle Lightning). There’s clearly a history between the women and the chemistry is smoking hot, with Sapphire flirtatiously telling Jax that dancing for her isn’t work and joking that she’s the only patron who gives her money when she’s still clothed. Jax’s queerness adds further nuance to the character, but doesn’t define her.

Attempting to protect Roki from her worst fears that Tawi might be dead, Jax encourages the girl in her hopes that she will be present at the upcoming state powwow, where the two usually take part in the mother and daughter dance; a tradition which reminds the community of women’s central place within it. Intending to head to the powwow together, their plans are scuppered when social services enter the scene, removing Roki and placing her with her white grandfather (Shea Whigham) and his wife (Audrey Wasilewski), citing Jax’s criminal record as evidence that she is an unsuitable guardian. When Jax decides to take Roki to the powwow anyway, the full force of the law swings into action, complete with major media coverage, in stark contrast to the lack of speed and dedication in the investigation into Tawi’s disappearance. There’s also bitter irony in a scene where Jax and Roki are detained by an ICE officer (Cory Hart) and interrogated about their immigration status, the word “homeland” stinging like a slap in the face.

Lily Gladstone received international acclaim and a raft of awards for her turn in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, and has appeared in the Hulu series Reservation Dogs and Tremblay’s Little Chief. Here, she delivers more outstanding work as Jax, blending an exterior steeliness with a well of vulnerability. As she desperately tries her best to hold things together, we can read a lifetime of experience in her eyes as Gladstone fully inhabits this character with every breath. While Isabel Deroy-Olson (who appeared in last year’s Three Pines on Prime Video) gives a remarkable, utterly absorbing performance as Roki, conveying a beyond her years maturity while still clinging to girlhood.

As Roki experiences her first period on the road, without her mother’s presence, Jax tries her best to fill her place as the two share a celebratory meal together at a diner. Roki reminds Jax that the word for aunt in the Cayuga language means “small mother”, and she needs her to embrace that role in her own mother’s absence. Together they make a captivating odd couple as they navigate each other under the heightened, life-changing circumstances of Tawi’s disappearance, drifting between English and Cayuga as they struggle to communicate emotionally. It’s clear from the attachment Roki has to dancing and her commitment to using the Cayuga language that she is determined to remain connected to her Native American heritage, something that her grandfather’s wife in particular doesn’t seem to grasp is an integral part of who the girl is. In reality, the last fluent speaker of the Cayuga language passed away 1989, so Tremblay has included it in the film partly to help revitalize it.

Native American Music Award and Indigenous Music Award-winning composer Samantha Crain’s gorgeously evocative score, with its vocal percussive elements, is used sparingly by Tremblay, making it all the more impactful. While a profoundly moving, yet comforting song honouring lost relatives accompanies the film’s end credits; “Sky World”, written by Theresa Bear Fox, performed by Teioswáthe. Visually, cinematographer Carolina Costa gives the film a rich natural warmth.

Tremblay isn’t restricted by genre, and Fancy Dance successfully combines a character-driven family drama with an on-the-run road movie, and mystery thriller, resulting in a work that both entertains and has something deeply meaningful to say. Although the tension dissipates at times, the strong performances keep things engaging, as the film builds to its gripping, emotionally potent climax that highlights the real life epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, while offering some hope for the bond between Jax and Roki and Native American resilience.

By James Kleinmann

Fancy Dance received its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and screens in-person again on Friday, January 27th. The film is available to stream on demand via the festival’s online portal. For more details and to purchase tickets head to the official Sundance website.

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