There are the stories we tell and then there are the stories beneath them. These are sometimes stated outright, bubbling to the surface, unable to be contained, while others are told via pieces of dialogue or in the negative spaces of a moment. Co-writer/director Erica Tremblay’s (Little Chief) latest project is more of the latter, telling a family story whose drama is propelled by centuries of subjugation, control, and minimization of a culture and their community. Though it originally premiered during Sundance 2023, this year’s imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival began with Tremblay and first-time writer Miciana Alise’s Fancy Dance, a startling and confrontational watch, lightened only by the incredible performances and chemistry between leads Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) and newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson.
With her sister missing, Jax (Gladstone) takes it upon herself to care for her niece Roki (Deroy-Olson) while the search is on-going. However, there are several problems, starting with the lack of seriousness taken by the FBI regarding reservation issues and continuing with the involvement of Jax’s father/Roki’s grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham), whose slight estrangement makes his appearance all the more stressful. What gives Roki hope is the upcoming powwow where she and her mother are the reigning champion mother-daughter dancers, but her fixation on this event tied to her mother’s return only amplifies the frustration within Jax regarding everyone else’s seeming inactivity toward finding her sister, leading Jax to take matters into her own hands to protect Roki.
In a scant 90 minutes, Tremblay takes the audience on a journey through a specific lens so that while things might seem similar in their description or packaging, there’s undeniable specificity being addressed. This is a story about a “family screw-up” trying to keep what remains of her family together, going to not-so-unreasonable means to do so. In the opening sequence, Jax and Roki are in the woods, each working on a different project when they spot a man fishing and decide to pull a lift. Now, it’s unclear where they are respective to the reservation, but, from my view, if he’s where he’s not supposed to be, that man is acting on presumptive privilege (the same kind that European immigrants used to push the Indigenous peoples of America to the sparse land they live on now) and deserves some piece of comeuppance. The sequence smartly illustrates the relationship between the two women, as well as their view of Caucasians, laying the groundwork for several sequences to come in which trust and expectation are critical to their survival. It also makes any potential breakage of trust all the more heartbreaking, should it occur. There’s weight to their relationship, all of which is cleanly and clearly established, along with the principal characters and their circumstances, within a short period. It takes a smart director and great writer to understand that exposition isn’t the only tool in the storytelling toolbox and that sometimes insinuation and inference are far more effective at filling in the blanks than two characters using dialogue in an unnatural manner just so the audience is able to get caught up.
Regarding the narrative, the way it weaponizes the cruelty of the U.S. justice system to craft tension is smart, even as it doesn’t have to go very far to do it. In other family drama stories where a child is missing its sole parent, there’s often a play for guardianship involved with the credibility of the initial caretaker called into question. This is fairly standard and leads to no surprises as our introduction to Jax involves her and Roki robbing someone. However, the legal tool used to potentially separate Jax from Roki causes Jax to invoke the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, a federal law which should protect children from being removed from custody. Adding fuel to the fire, Whigham’s Caucasian Frank doesn’t put up any argument as to why the two shouldn’t be removed, citing that he’s just following the law, an easy statement to be made by a man who left his children on the reservation after the death of their mother and who remarried a Caucasian woman (played with the perfect misguided ally energy by character actor Audry Wasilewski (Everything Everywhere All at Once)). The script points a bloodied and battered finger at the FBI and U.S. government representatives, calling those who care little for the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples (not a spoiler, so much as a description/statement of a tumultuous and treacherous history), hypocrites for the lives they deem worthy and to whom they listen when pleas for help arise.
As emotionally charged as the text and subtext are, none of this matters if the performances from Gladstone and Deroy-Olson don’t connect. Baring the weight of the film almost entirely, Gladstone deftly navigates the shifting tones of humor, horror, heart, and grief. The script seems to weave in various dramatic challenges that might, under different circumstances, seem formulaic or contrived, yet, through the specific circumstance and Gladstone, each one comes across as naturally occurring and appropriately tension-filled. It’s with ease that we believe Gladstone as the calm hustler who calmly cues Roki on what to do when approached by a suspicious ICE officer just as much as we do the in-over-her-head sister trying to track down the answers the FBI refuse to find. For her part, Deroy-Olson never comes off as doe-eyed or idyllic in her performance, giving Roki the grace to handle the hard truths of her circumstance as long as people are being straight with her. Herein lies the tension of the tale as a whole, where the truths kept from family members are what drive the wedge between them, causing dismay and strife rather than pulling them together in times of hardship.
If you’d like to learn more about Fancy Dance, watch this interview between Tremblay, Alise, Gladstone, and Deroy-Olson and IndieWire from Sundance 2023.
A strange, but worth mentioning coincidence is that I viewed Fancy Dance on the same day (October 20th) as the wide U.S. release of another Gladstone film, Killers of the Floor Moon. I haven’t seen the film as I was unable to attend the press screening, but I am aware that it’s based on the true story of involving the murder of Indigenous peoples in Osage County, Oklahoma, – the same state in which the story of Jax and Roki takes place. Especially with the inclusion of Gladstone in both films, one can draw a thematic connection between the adaptation of real events in KotFM and the fictional events that bare the mark of truth in Fancy Dance. So much of the drama in Fancy Dance is derived from cultural clash, from perceived unimportance, all of which is supported by historical action and U.S. law. With this in mind, there’s a persistent heaviness to Tremblay’s film so that, even as the credits fall, the joy is bittersweet and devoid of relief.
Screening during imagineNATIVE 2023.
For more information, head to the official imagineNATIVE 2023 Fancy Dance webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.