Fancy Dance Review: Touching Tale Sheds Light On Missing Native Women [Sundance]
This year’s Sundance Film Festival hosted its fair share of works by Indigenous creators, with one of the most impressive standouts being the feature-length fiction film Fancy Dance. Led by a captivating Lily Gladstone (who will soon be seen in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon) and a fresh-faced Isabel Deroy-Olson (who currently stars in Three Pines), the film follows a family who comes face to face with tragedy and disillusionment when one of their own goes missing. Nevertheless, all hope is never lost — for though Fancy Dance has a bleak message to send, there is a lightness in its heroines’ hearts that is not bogged down by harsh reality.
Fancy Dance introduces audiences to Jax (Gladstone) and her niece Roki (Deroy-Olson), who are in the midst of their daily routine at the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation. This routine involves hustling strangers out of their car keys, which only serves to highlight the dire circumstances that society has thrust upon them, as it’s clear that Jax is a loyal and loving aunt in every respect. The tension that surrounds their escapades for the sake of survival only heightens when it is revealed that Roki’s mother Tawi has been missing for weeks, and the police have done nothing to find her. Though Roki fervently hopes her mother will appear at the annual powwow to dance with her, Jax must deal with the very real possibility that Tawi has been taken from them for good, and that she will lose Roki to child protective services.
Fancy Dance is a shockingly surefooted feature directorial debut for Erica Tremblay, who has cut her teeth writing for beloved Native-led shows like Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs. She follows similar themes here, focusing on the ways in which the infrastructure of government and law enforcement alike have alienated and abandoned Native women in their times of need. But thankfully, Tremblay knows how to keep such heavy subject matter from weighing down her script or her characters. Much like Jax lets Roki continue to believe Tawi will appear at any moment, the film itself creates a magical bubble that lets viewers believe it too.
Life without hope is meaningless, which is something that Fancy Dance understands all too well, but hope without action is just as damaging. When Jax’s father Frank (played with understated authority by Shea Whigham) comes into the picture, having been granted custody of his estranged granddaughter alongside his new wife, his fumbling attempts to connect with Roki highlight how ineffective empty words are when the speaker has made no move to help. The broken relationship between Jax and Frank is also given its due, making the film as much of a family drama as it is a statement on the failures of modern society.
Tawi may be considered the biggest weakness in Fancy Dance, acting as more of a metaphor or cipher than a real person, but her absence is crucial to the narrative. The history of violence against Indigenous women, and of missing Native women who are never found, is a silent epidemic that continues to this day. While the fact that she is never focused on (and hardly even seen, for that matter) prevents her from feeling like more than an extension of the other characters at times, it also drives home how real women are becoming a statistic. It also allows for more lighthearted moments between Roki and Jax, or even between Jax and her on-and-off girlfriend Sapphire (Crystle Lightning), to shine through.
Though there is not as much dancing as the title would imply, Fancy Dance uses the upcoming powwow as a symbol of hope that never dies. Roki awaits the grand occasion because it represents her chance to see her mother again, but it also offers audiences the opportunity to see the Indigenous community that lifts her and Jax up. As tough as things get for the leads, with law enforcement representing danger for them instead of protection, there is the beautiful sense that their joy can not be lessened if they can have one more dance.
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Fancy Dance premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 20. The film is 90 minutes long and is not yet rated.