Cloaking a family drama in crime-film conventions, the plot of Native American filmmaker Erica Tremblay’s exceptional directorial debut concerns a young woman’s disappearance from an Oklahoma reservation and her family’s urgent attempts to locate her. At the same time, Fancy Dance presents a broader narrative that emphasizes the connections that sustain families, communities and tribal nations, even when confronted with a legacy of disenfranchisement. Tremblay’s film validates the varied expressions of that experience with an affirming account of resilience and hope that sparkles with authentic performances, sensitive scripting and a genuine sense of place that resonate well after the final credits roll.
Fancy Dance finds its grounding in two standout turns from Lily Gladstone (Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon) and newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson (Amazon Prime’s Three Pines) as two women struggling to hold out hope when the nationwide crisis of missing Native women suddenly becomes frighteningly personal for them.
The Bottom Line
An authentically observant slice of reservation life.
After her sister Tawi (Hauli Gray) vanishes from the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, queer 30-ish scammer Jax (Lily Gladstone) steps in to look after her precocious 13-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), who has already picked up on her aunt’s wide variety of dodges and cons. An early scene reveals her effectiveness as an underage accomplice when the two encounter a fly fisherman along a local stream. While Jax distracts him, Roki steals his wallet and keys from his tackle box before they take off with his pickup truck.
Meanwhile, Jax’s search for information about Tawi’s disappearance has turned up little, even after reporting the incident to local police and the FBI. Concerned by law enforcement’s inaction and frustrated by her reservation cop brother JJ (Ryan Begay) reminding her that Tawi has pulled similar vanishing acts before, Jax begins to follow up on rumors circulating in the community that could help lead to her sister. Although Roki is curious about her mom’s absence, she’s much more focused on plans to attend an upcoming powwow, eagerly awaiting Tawi’s return while practicing her dance steps for the event’s performances.
As word spreads that Tawi has gone missing, it’s not long before tensions spike when child welfare authorities show up at the door of the home that Jax shares with her sister and niece and remove Roki. As a temporary measure, they place her with Jax’s estranged white father Frank (Shea Whigham) and his wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski) after a background check turns up Jax’s criminal record. Fearful that she won’t be able to gain custody of her niece, Jax furtively collects Roki from Frank’s place in the middle of the night and the two set off in search of Tawi while en route to the powwow, triggering an Amber Alert after Frank reports Roki missing.
At this juncture, not even halfway through the film, Tremblay (who is from the Seneca-Cayuga nation) and co-writer Miciana Alise’s keenly observant script has touched on a disconcertingly complex array of social issues, including endemic poverty, racism, foster care, and drug and alcohol abuse in Native communities. For the filmmakers, though, it’s the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls that provides the film’s thematic throughline.
Handled with candor and grace, these concerns are well integrated into the narrative and dialogue (often in the Cayuga language) so that they’re recognizable, but not melodramatically manipulative. Although the screenwriters choose to overlook the outcome of the pair’s crime spree, it’s clear that there will be consequences somewhere down the line for an unfortunate series of offenses, perpetrated primarily out of necessity rather than malice.
Taking on a borderline-unlikable character like Jax, who can be rude, deceitful and antagonistic, Gladstone doesn’t hold back, always mindful that Jax’s outward hostility is actually a profound instinct to protect her loved ones, if not always herself. Deroy-Olson knows that Roki is no innocent either, but recognizes that she is yearning for guidance and validation, and while she senses the value that her mother and aunt place in her, Roki isn’t sure that the world beyond the reservation will treat her with similar care.
Tremblay, who’s been holding down writing and directing duties on Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s Reservation Dogs on FX, shot Fancy Dance in the Cherokee Nation. Already familiar with the landscape, she’s not as interested in beauty shots or exploiting details of reservation life as much as she is in setting her characters in their lived environment. So while there are occasional shots of shimmering clear streams and waving prairie grasses, most scenes are set in tract homes, mini-malls and gas stations that often appear to imprison the characters in an ongoing cycle of struggle and dislocation.
It’s when they come together as a community, as in the final scenes set at a large powwow, that these characters find their place, immersed in their culture, free of expectations and steeped in joy. It’s an affirming and celebratory setting to conclude the film, which nonetheless remains mindful of the challenges ahead.