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Fancy Dance

The story of settler colonialism in North America is one of disappeared Native women, fractured families, lost language, and forced assimilation. Cinema has also played a role in this cultural violence, depicting Native people as stubborn, violent barriers to progress. But what, effectively, is this progress? What are we as a society supposed to be progressing towards? “Fancy Dance,” from Apple TV+, doesn’t bother to answer that question, choosing instead to interrogate the usefulness of white intervention in Native communities. It’s a story about resistance in its most basic form–keeping a family together no matter what.

“Fancy Dance” is the first narrative feature from writer-director Erica Tremblay and her co-writer Michiana Alise, anchored by a strong Lily Gladstone performance in the wake of her historic Academy Award nomination for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Gladstone plays Jax, a queer Cayuga woman living with her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) on a reservation in Oklahoma. Jax’s sister Wadatawi has been missing for two weeks, and she fears the worst. Even though Jax’s half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay) is an officer, Tribal PD has done little to find Tawi, and the FBI has been of no help either. When child protective services come asking after Roki, Jax realizes it’s her responsibility to step up and become a real parent to her niece. But when her criminal record is uncovered, Roki is forcibly put under the care of her estranged grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham) and his second wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski). Frank left the reservation years ago, and his daughters have never forgiven him for choosing a new white life over them. Jax never uses those words, but the implication is clear, and now Roki would also be forced to leave and embrace a life divorced from her heritage. 

Though people around her see Jax as a criminal, Tremblay and Alise’s screenplay contrasts her external edge with nuanced moments of warmth and communion with the land. Everything Jax does is in service of her family and the land she’s lived on her entire life. She even has romantic ties as well, making time to visit a kind stripper named Sapphire (Crystle Lightning), who clearly wants more from their relationship. Despite her devotion to the reservation, Jax seems afraid to settle down like her mother did. She knows she wants to protect her loved ones but isn’t sure how to go about it. Acting on pure instinct, Jax takes Roki and the pair try to make their way to the tribal Powwow in Oklahoma City. Roki is used to going every year with her mother, and Jax doesn’t want to break the tradition. On the way, Jax makes a promise to Roki that she can’t keep: Her mother, Tawi, will be at the Powwow, and they’ll all be together again. 

“Fancy Dance” excels at showing the authentic lives led by Jax and her missing sister without judgment. Tawi worked at the strip club with Sapphire, and Jax used to run drugs down to the trailers where the white oil rig workers live. They did whatever they could to make money and look after Roki in a society that provides few options for Native people living on reservations. And to her credit, Roki doesn’t judge Jax or her missing mother for their choices. She loves them purely and unconditionally, even if she doesn’t always understand them. Deroy-Olson more than holds her own with Gladstone, giving a subtle and nuanced performance as a 13-year-old girl coming of age in desperate circumstances. She looks after her aunt just as much as her aunt looks after her, with a protective spirit that comes from knowing and respecting her ancestral home and culture. Gladstone builds on her recent starring roles in “The Unknown Country” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” as an actress dedicated to portraying Native culture with nuance and reverence. The best scenes in the film include Gladstone and Deroy-Olson speaking Cayuga together, saying things to each other not meant for white ears.

Roki and Jax’s journey together is a dangerous one, with white men posing a threat to them at every turn. In one particularly tense scene, ICE accosts them in a store parking lot. The same FBI that hasn’t lifted a finger to find Tawi is suddenly on their tail after Frank and Nancy report the kidnapping. And yet, none of these obstacles hold a candle to the spiritual significance of this bond between aunt and niece. Jax and Roki know that all they have is each other and are determined to live their lives on their terms. Despite its soft sentimentality, “Fancy Dance” is a film about resistance against a careless, racist government that thrives on assimilation and cultural amnesia. The same FBI that made its good name off of the murders of Osage people no longer cares to undo the harm caused by racism and greed. “Fancy Dance” reminds us of how communities care for each other, regardless of the risk involved. Tremblay’s narrative debut is simply beautiful, and hopefully, there’s much more to come.

Jourdain Searles

Jourdain Searles is a freelance film and culture writer with bylines in The Hollywood Reporter, New York Magazine, Sight & Sound, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Indiewire, among many other publications.

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Fancy Dance movie poster

Fancy Dance (2024)

91 minutes

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