Fancy Dance Uses Fiction to Highlight Love, Loss and MMIW [Sundance Review]

Fancy Dance still of Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) and Jax (Lily Gladstone)

Films usually encompass the same stories from identical perspectives. Fancy Dance, playing at Sundance Film Festival, is more than a road trip movie. An often unheard and excluded point of view helms this tale of family and community. Giving voice to the oft-silenced community, director Erica Tremblay uses the story, co-written with Miciana Alise, to underscore harm in marginalized Indigenous communities. With a terrific cast, Fancy Dance sheds light on the harsh life and loss of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women).   

Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) faces something no child should face. Her mother, Tawi, is missing. She’s not alone. Her aunt, Jax (Lily Gladstone), cares for her over the past few weeks. As members of the Seneca-Cayuga tribe living on the reservation, survival options are limited. So between caring for Roki and theft, Jax follows up about her sister’s missing persons case. Unsurprisingly, finding an Indigenous woman is not a priority. On top of that, Jax’s brother, JJ (Ryan Begay), is an officer too, but they have no jurisdiction over the case as the FBI took over. 

Fancy Dance is a Fictional Story of Truth

Fancy Dance photo of director Erica Tremblay.
Erica Tremblay, director of Fancy Dance, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by August Baumgartner.

Sadly, marginalized communities have to do the work themselves. Non-white women receive few resources to pursue answers, let alone justice. Jax puts in the most work on this front. But the community does go on search parties, looking for Tawi. Meanwhile, Roki plans for the mother-daughter dance at the yearly powwow. She and her mom win every year. 

When a caseworker arrives with paperwork for temporary guardianship for Jax, she tells Jax she has two weeks to send it in. So when the woman returns within a couple of days, you know it’s bad news. Jax and Tawi’s mother was Indigenous, but their father is a white man, Frank (Shea Whigham), now with a white wife, Nancy. Given Jax’s criminal record, Roki must stay with her grandfather. Neither Roki nor Jax is happy with the circumstances. Making matters worse, the couple decides Roki cannot attend the powwow this year. Hence Jax sneaks in at night, takes Roki, and steals her dad’s car. 

Issues of Identity and Discrimination Are Seamless

Fancy Dance spotlights being a woman on a reservation and the danger and inconsequentiality of their existence. There are no dramatic scenes, but they have a naturalness that emphasizes the everyday nature of their experiences. The typical quality is what makes it so tragic. One of the most frustrating aspects, aside from the governmental disregard, is the ignorance exhibited by Jax’s father and his wife. 

His wife trivializes the powwow as mere dance, and her husband tries to educate her a little. What stands out is before visiting, she did not ask questions or do any research to learn about that culture. Jax’s father is no better as he ignores his privilege. When Jax asks him to call the FBI, he asks why she feels they’ll listen to him, not her. Frank even listens to Nancy about reporting Jax for kidnapping despite the damage it will do to both Jax and Roki. In the end, Frank and Nancy create more harm.

Powerful Acting

Fancy Dance still of Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) and Jax (Lily Gladstone)
A still from Fancy Dance by Erica Tremblay, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Fancy Dance works in part thanks to the acting. Lily Gladstone gives levels to Jax. She made mistakes—though how much you can call those mistakes when there are few options for earning a living—but they do not define her. Gladstone shows the rage, fear and exhaustion doing the work to find answers amidst the failure of family and law enforcement. Isabel Deroy-Olson performance breaks your heart as you see her innocence and child-like hope. 

Although there’s no resolution to everything, Fancy Dance shows the importance of tradition and letting children hold onto beauty amid tragedy. It’s a sad film, but hopeful also. There is beauty in the community, from the powwows to celebrating a girl’s first period. Using fiction, Erica Tremblay and the cast highlight the epidemic of missing and murdered women in Indigenous communities. Not only the loss, but they also give a glimpse of the failure of law enforcement. Watching them make no effort shows it’s up to viewers to raise awareness. Fancy Dance is a humanizing look at the cost of marginalization and disregard with a focused story of one family’s loss and resilience.

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