‘Fancy Dance’ Review: Lily Gladstone Shines in Powerful Native Story

Erica Tremblay’s road movie deftly and emotionally explores familial bonds through the eyes of an aunt-niece relationship

Significant Productions/Apple TV+

Some movies make a lasting impact. No matter what, there isn’t a week you don’t think about them. Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance” is one of those films. The drama, starring Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson, powerfully depicts a tale of loss and the strength of relations while also delving closely into the matter of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), an issue that’s largely ignored. With its remarkable cast and emotional writing, “Fancy Dance” is a touching must-see.

The film takes place on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma. After her sister goes missing, Jax (Lily Gladstone) must step up and take care of her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). Trying to survive by selling gathered herbs, or scraping the yards, Jax is also determined to help Roki get ready for an upcoming powwow. Things take a turn for the worst when Jax is threatened to lose custody of her niece to Roki’s father, Frank (Shea Whigham). Caught between a rock and a hard place, the aunt and the niece flee and hit the road, continuing to search for Tawi (Hauli Gray) before the Grand Nation Powwow in Oklahoma City.

“Fancy Dance” packs a lot into its 90-minute running time as the film tells the story of a beautiful aunt-niece relationship, features multifaceted, well-crafted Native characters, sheds light on Native culture and the significance of powwows, and, most importantly, raises awareness about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Through the depiction of characters speaking in Cayuga language and Jax’s portrayal, Tremblay showcases the complex lives of Indigenous women living in a colonized society while constantly under threat of a flawed legal system.

Gladstone and Deroy-Olson are both exceptional performers as they deftly depict the everlasting link that can exist among family members. In moments they don’t speak, they can understand each other silently, playing the scenes with subtle gestures instead of language.

Moreover, Tremblay and Miciana Alise’s script is poignant and distinctive. The writers capture a gamut of contemporary Native culture in a way that we’ve never seen before. It’s raw, yet beautiful. As Jax and Roki travel to the powwow, they invite us into their world.

At one point during the film, Roki asks Jax if she remembers what aunt means in their language. Jax replies: “Other mother.” It’s someone who’s there for you, cheering you on from the sidelines and stepping up as a second mother when the occasion calls for it. “Fancy Dance” eloquently depicts the definition of the word through Jax and Roki’s relationship. As the drama also broadly addresses Tawi’s disappearance and Jax’s concern about losing custody of Roki, each storyline is thoroughly explored.

“Fancy Dance” is a lot of things. It’s a road movie depicting a beautiful aunt-niece relationship, it’s a drama exploring one Native woman’s life, but most importantly, it’s a film that brings more awareness regarding the MMIW and its tragic epidemic. That it manages to juggle all of this while also providing a cohesive, emotional and impactful narrative is a testament to the power of Tremblay’s filmmaking and the performances we see on screen.

“Fancy Dance” is now playing in select theaters and streams globally on Apple TV+ on June 28, 2024.


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