Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 2nd, 2023
Fancy Dance (Erica Tremblay, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Jax is probably not most people’s idea of an ideal role model. An ex-con who served time for drug dealing, she makes ends meet on the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma through some not-so-petty theft (such as stealing a vehicle), often accompanied by her teenage niece, Roki. Still, that’s just one way of looking at things. One could also see her as resourceful and, as far as Roki goes, extremely nurturing. With Roki’s mother—Jax’s sister–Tawi missing, the two are a bonded pair. In a world where the American continent’s indigenous population is still seen as second-class citizens by the white establishment, family and tradition are everything.
In Fancy Dance, from director Erica Tremblay (herself Seneca-Cayuga), we follow Jax (Lily Gladstone, Certain Women) and Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) as they head to an annual powwow where Roki hopes to perform a dance that she would normally do with her mother, were she around. That journey, coupled with the mystery surrounding Tawi’s disappearance, forms the narrative spine of the movie, anchoring Tremblay’s themes of native disenfranchisement. These become especially fraught with the arrival of Jax’s (and Tawi’s) white father, Frank (Shea Wigham, The Gray Man).
In bits and pieces, we learn that Frank at some point left the reservation and his daughters and subsequently remarried, this time to a white woman, Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski, The Road to Galena). When a representative from Child Protective Services comes by to check on Roki, knowing that Tawi has vanished, they look to Frank as a more viable option than Jax, even though he barely knows his granddaughter. Of course they do.
And so a push and pull begins, competing for Roki’s loyalty. All the while, Jax keeps on looking for Tawi, enlisting her half-brother, JJ (Ryan Begay), a reservation police officer, to find her. But when Jax, herself, becomes the object of a police hunt, that operation threatens to overshadow solving the more important crime of what happened to Tawi. And Frank is no help, a useless man oblivious to how much his white privilege gets in the way.
Tremblay pulls off the difficult cinematic hat trick of managing both thriller and dramatic elements with equal finesse. Some of her sentimental scenes don’t work quite as well, but the overall effect here is of a hard-hitting exposé of age-old discrimination that just never goes away. Jax has lived her whole life feeling the effects of her culture and people’s subservient status, yet remains unbowed. When seen through the lens of Native American genocide, her behavior seems like just one of many appropriate responses.
Gladstone is excellent, as always. So is Wigham. Some of the rest of the cast is uneven, but the story holds. There’s nothing fancy, really, in Fancy Dance, just cold, hard truths. Their icy sting may hurt, but it’s also bracing. Dance on.