‘Fancy Dance’ Review: An Intense Look at Native Lives Being Swept Under the Rug

The indifference of the system toward Native lives hangs like a dense fog over the film.

Fancy Dance
Photo: Apple TV+

Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance is a sunshine noir set on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation of the filmmaker’s people in Oklahoma. The place is a food desert where there are few jobs for people, who have tense relations with nearby non-indigenous communities. Economic precarity and the residents’ uneasy relationship with federal governance is legible just about everywhere you look, and Tremblay’s granular attention to place makes sure that you take note.

The reservation’s residential areas mostly consist of mobile homes or Levittown-style basic housing, and the interiors of those spaces look frozen in the 1980s: all thick carpet, bulky furniture, and cathode-ray televisions. Carolina Costa’s stark, brightly lit cinematography calls attention to the harsh conditions of life on the reservation, with run-down stores littering dusty, inarable land like outposts of a frontier long ago mapped and exploited of resources by others. It’s a place so sparsely populated and minimally adorned that everyone seems to know where everyone is at all times. And yet, some still manage to fall through the cracks.

One such person is Tawi, who’s been missing for some time at the start of Fancy Dance and has left behind a tween daughter, Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson), as well as a sister, Jax (Lily Gladstone), who’s become the child’s de facto guardian. As both attempt to locate their loved one, they inadvertently peel back more layers to Tawi’s involvement with the seedier elements of life on the reservation and nearby towns, from drug dealing to possible sex work. And yet, as Jax herself alludes to, there are few “respectable” ways to make money for people here that doesn’t involve leaving the reservation and abandoning one’s tribe, and she herself has a record, which comes to light when social workers come around her home threatening to remove Roki.

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The dual pressures of Tawi’s absence and the looming threat of losing custody of Roki drive Jax to frantic ends to keep her fragmenting family together. As she did in Killers of the Flower Moon, Gladstone walks a tightrope between her character’s desperate denial of a nearly certain outcome and a numb, post-traumatic acceptance of the likely truth. Jax regularly projects a thin veneer of calm and certainty to mollify Roki, but she gives away the frayed nerves behind her facade in the urgent tone with which she asks strangers if they’ve seen Tawi, as well as in sudden, darting motions whenever she feels the world closing in around her.

Just like Gladstone’s Mollie in Killers of the Flower Moon, Jax habitually runs up against the manner in which the American government’s ostensible respect for tribal self-governance seems mostly a polite expression of its complete indifference to indigenous lives. It takes no time for Child Protective Services to show up when Jax’s white father, Frank (Shea Whigham), says that he wants to raise Roki. And when the girl and Jax go on the lam in search of Tawi, the F.B.I. gets involved so quickly that even the local law enforcement officer, JJ (Ryan Begay), remarks that the bureau didn’t show this kind of hustle when he requested their help in investigating Tawi’s disappearance. JJ even asks the agent on the scene to look into Tawi’s case while searching for Jax and Roki, only for that request to be hand-waved away as a distraction.

That indifference hangs like a dense fog over the escalating tension of the final act, undercutting Jax’s frantic movements with a foregone awareness that the situation can only end one way. Even Roki, initially a doe-eyed naif who asks innocent questions about whether her mother will be home in time for her coming-of-age powwow, begins to exhibit a more world-weary, cynical awareness that suggests her earlier naveté is as much a facade as her aunt’s practiced cool.

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Both women’s increasing acceptance of inevitability leads to a somber coda filled with defeat in the face of a system that’s only ever known how to oppress and harm their people, never help them. The best that either can hope for is to retain their sense of self as that system does everything possible to strip them of their identity and freedom.

Score: 
 Cast: Lily Gladstone, Isabel DeRoy-Olson, Ryan Begay, Crystle Lightning, Audrey Wasilewski, Shea Whigham  Director: Erica Tremblay  Screenwriter: Erica Tremblay, Miciana Alise  Distributor: Apple TV+  Running Time: 91 min  Rating: R  Year: 2023

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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