Fancy Dance is a Crime Thriller that Shows the Fractured Heart of the Native American Experience
Sundance 2023: Fancy Dance Review
Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance is the kind of crime thriller reminiscent of another time but also unmistakably contemporary. It’s the kind of mid-budget adult fare with a morally complex conceit that, had it been released during the Clinton administration, might star Ashley Judd and Jena Malone. Instead, it uses those pulpy tropes to illustrate the perils that Native American communities struggle with to this day.
When we first meet Jax (Lily Gladstone) and her niece Roki (newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olsen) they are foraging together. Jax shows her 13-year-old niece how to extract what they need from a plant without killing it when they encounter a man fishing. The two share a quiet exchange before Jax walks to the stream to bathe herself in the clear water and warm sun; a distraction for the nimble Roki to lift the man’s keys and wallet. This mix of vice and Native culture is the core of Tremblay’s debut feature film.
The street-wise Jax has been taking care of Roki since her mother went missing, a not uncommon occurrence though this time seems different. Gladstone embodies the queer hustler with smoldering efficiency. Her bruised arms and confident gait immediately back up her swindler persona, but the measured fissures of her performance allow glimpses of the love for her family that drives her choices.
The two run small grifts as the impressionable Roki focuses on the annual state powwow, at which she and her mother perform a mother-daughter dance each year. We see Jax visiting her partner at the strip club and admonishing her half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay), a local law enforcement officer, for not doing enough to find Roki’s mother.
Trouble comes when a background check on Jax by child services surfaces her history of low-level crimes. Her hustler lifestyle is enough to put Roki in the care of her white grandfather Frank, played by consummate character actor cast to be a problem: Shea Wigham, who has since married after the death of Jax’s mother.
With the federal agencies tasked with finding Roki’s mother dragging their feet, Jax decides she needs to take matters into her own hands. With Roki’s grandparents unable to take her to the pow-wow, Jax steals her away in the night, telling Frank she is just taking her to the pow-wow. Though Frank begrudgingly puts his trust in Jax at first, his wife is less forgiving and pressures him into alerting the authorities. A federal manhunt quickly ensues, with Jax and Roki’s faces covering news broadcasts in the surrounding areas.
The ease and expediency with which the federal authorities mobilize when Roki is both given and taken from her white caretakers while Roki’s mother’s disappearance is given little to no attention is the point. The jurisdictional complexities endemic to Native American reservations are demonstrative of whom all this bureaucracy works for. It’s not the Native Americans. As of 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the U.S Department of Justice has only reported 116 cases.
As Jax and Roki’s journey continues, the movie becomes a mix of detective, coming-of-age, and road trip story – all infused and propelled by the Native culture in which Roki so dearly wants to participate and Jax’s path to reconnecting after the death of her mother.
Tremblay, a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation who recently worked on FX’s breakout hit Reservation Dogs, made the integration and representation of Indigenous culture a paramount concern for the film. Jax and Roki speak Cayuga, an endangered language where less than twenty first-language speakers are estimated to exist. Tremblay says the last fluent speaker in her community in Oklahoma died in 1989.
In 2019, the director moved to the Six Nation Reserve in Canada and began attending a Cayuga language program, where she was struck with the idea that young people speak the language fluently and lead to Fancy Dance. On set, the crew used the language for set calls like “action,” “cut,” and “that’s a wrap.”
If you attend the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, each and every screening begins with a land acknowledgment crediting the Native cultures on whose land the bougie festival and ski town currently exist. Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise met at the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Lab. Fancy Dance is a successful product of those efforts to elevate voices often excluded from contemporary filmmaking.
When Roki is living with her grandparents, her white grandmother offers her old ballet shoes and promises lessons as a way to assuage Roki’s disappointment of not getting to dance at the powwow. The young girl, still working to grasp her tribal culture, struggles to articulate the difference between the two kinds of dance. Tremblay expertly uses this to demonstrate the inherent distinction between her culture and the dominant one of her grandmother. Ballet, viewed as an elevated form of dance, is about study, practice, and skill in white western culture. The dance Roki wants to do is about none of that. It’s about spirit, feeling, and the ineffable connection that exists when expressing yourself freely with those you love. It’s a celebration of spirit, not discipline.
Tremblay dramatizes the existential threat to America’s indigenous population and the importance of elders as guides to the pasts our modern world is uninterested in. Even if you don’t lay claim to an indigenous culture, you most likely understand the importance of ancestral connection.