‘Fancy Dance’: An Intimate Portrait of the Struggles of Native Women (REVIEW)

Critics everywhere will tell you they have their own metrics for judging whatever film they’re watching. Beyond my profession in the industry and the knowledge of the filmmaking process that comes with it, one metric I use more often than not is whether the movie made me cry. That may sound silly, but it’s never done me wrong – and it did not fail me now with Fancy Dance. The much-anticipated feature directorial debut from Erica Tremblay is unflinching. She makes it a point to show us what we do not want to see in order to show us the severity of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic and how it affects those left behind.

Fancy Dance follows Jax (Lily Gladstone), a determined Native woman who finds herself taking care of her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) after her sister goes missing. The film illustrates the uneven field on which Native women have to play every day, doing literally anything they can just to scrape without assistance – even when they go missing. Jax and Roki embark on a perilous journey to the annual powwow, where Jax assures Roki her mother will be.    

Fancy Dance review 1
Isabel Deroy-Olson as Roki and Lily Gladstone as Jax in Fancy Dance (COURTESY: SUNDANCE INSTITUTE)

Gladstone is a true rock, powerful and steady all the way through Fancy Dance, showcasing not just their amazing acting talents but their ability to connect with the audience. Jax’s journey is driven by justice and truth: she needs to know what happened to her sister and she’ll stop at nothing, not even after putting herself in harm’s way, to figure it out. Because Jax knows that if she isn’t the one looking, no one else will. Her relationship with Roki, as the girl’s “other mother” will, quite simply, break your heart. Gladstone and Deroy-Olson’s chemistry is incredible, nurturing, kind – which is also thanks to the up-and-coming latter star’s undeniable talent. She dazzles throughout Fancy Dance, her character’s own coming-of-age journey parallelling her aunt’s beautifully. 

This film does not shy away from emphasizing the disparity between white and indigenous reported crimes. It’s in part an indictment of just how fast the justice and police systems will move when a white person cries wolf, but not when Native women have been missing for weeks, months, and years. Fancy Dance also points out the very real problem with family courts and government organizations more concerned with a child’s (supposedly) ideal living conditions than with what the child actually wants. The system rips Roki away from the only family she’s ever known, from the house she grew up in, and her community and culture without a second thought. 

Fancy Dance merits every word of praise it gets. Keep an ear out for news about this film coming out of Sundance and plan to go see it whenever it gets its well-deserved release.

(PS: I cried three times. It’s been a good Sundance for tears.)

Rating: 9/10

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