Plot via Sundance
Since her sister’s disappearance, Jax (Lily Gladstone) has cared for her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) by scraping by on the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma. Every spare minute goes into finding her missing sister while also helping Roki prepare for an upcoming powwow. At the risk of losing custody to Jax’s father, Frank (Shea Whigham), the pair hit the road and scour the backcountry to track down Roki’s mother in time for the powwow. What begins as a search gradually turns into a far deeper investigation into the complexities and contradictions of Indigenous women moving through a colonized world and at the mercy of a failed justice system.
Lily Gladstone is an actress I will be keeping tabs on this year. She will be starring in Scorsese’s next Killers of the Flower Moon. Based on the genuineness she gives her character, Jax, in Fancy Dance she is due for a major breakthrough role.
Jax is a Native American woman, reservation bound, caught between the hardships of being a mother figure to a younger niece, Roxi (Isabel Deroy-Olson) while looking for an older absent sister who’s gone missing, and is maybe dead. It’s the twin angst for most Native American women: fear of erasure and being impoverished mothers always struggling to survive.
The two live off small scale hustles and petty crimes like shoplifting and Roxi’s dream of dancing in the annual Pow-wow where she hopes to find and reconnect with her missing mother. It gives them enough emotional evaluation to feel and exist one step above desperation. And with the absent mother, there is always the threat, and eventually the reality, the government in the form of child protective services, will take Roxi away and have her live with an absent grandfather or a child needy white couple.
Gladstone and Olson bouncing off each other form a dynamic character study that plays within the ongoing injustices found in everyday Native American life. Gladstone’s is particularly impressive in how she not only shows but add layers to this existence, this sad Indian dance between the rising up and the breaking down of spirit. She gets into showing the how’s and why’s of why Jax, and by extension, every Native American woman, must harden herself.
Olson is also up to the task Gladstone has shown her in her performance. Their chemistry shines through and gives Fancy Dance the perfect balance. Their relationship is natural and lived in. It’s a pleasure watching these two hit perfect emotional notes.
Outside of them Fancy Dance feels less vibrant. The plot exists to crush their souls and relationship. Yes, their is some version of white liberal guilt being played out in the nuance acting of Shea Whigham’s Frank, but I wished the film had left Olson and Gladstone alone to have their private dance and pow-wow.
Fancy Dance gets a 4 out of 5, an A-.
NINA YANG BONGIOVI
ROBERT GRIGSBY WILSON