Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance shows the darkside of reservation life for Indigenous people, especially women. As an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Fancy Dance it’s a unique viewing experience as the viewer is brought in to observe these characters and how they navigate a desperate situation. Written by Tremblay and Miciana Alisa, this drama/mystery shows how often people have to take matters into their own hands because the outside world doesn’t care enough to work with this community to find these missing women.
Fancy Dance is a procedural following Jax (Lily Gladstone), and her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), who are looking for Tawi (Hauli Gray), who is Jax’s sister and Roki’s mother, who has gone missing. Jax is a former drug dealer, and often gets in trouble with the law. Now acting as her niece’s guardian, the two are troublemakers, stealing money and cars from folks, scamming people in card games, and doing anything to make ends meet.
The duo Is looking forward to the upcoming Pow wow but a wrench is thrown in that plan when Roki’s White grandfather Frank and his wife show up to take her away due to the unstable living conditions her and Jax are living in. This new arrangement doesn’t sit well with her, so she kidnaps Roki and the two go on the run, all while trying to find what happened to Tawi.
There is an epidemic of missing Indigenous women throughout the US and Canada. These missing persons cases are usually handled poorly due to racism, and sexism which means most of these women aren’t even looked for by the police outside of the reservation, forget about being found. In one scene, as Frank has already called the authorities to search for Roki, Jax, JJ (Ryan Begay), a cop on the reservation also looking for the young girl, asks the FBI when they plan to resume investigating Tawi’s disappearance. They make it clear that the needs of White people are prioritized in their hierarchy of care.
This family trying to stick together and keep what little legacy they have left. Tremblay paints a picture of what life is like on a reservation: people in poverty, a fractured justice system, broken homes, and drugs and alcohol abuse. Life is so bleak in some of these locations that tradition is all some of these some have to keep them connected to their culture, and the reason why Jax and Roki are so desperate to get to the Pow wow. Cinematographer Carolina Costa gives the look a film noir sensibility, as characters navigate through the shadows and dark alleyways on and off the reservation.
Gladstone and Deroy-Olson do the heavy lifting here. The film chronicles their journey which is a coming-of-age story for both characters who are learning to build a stronger connection with their culture. Deroy-Olson specifically represents a generation of young people who understand the gravity of their situation, but are still hopeful about the future to come.
Despite being separated by circumstances, Jax and Roki eventually come together at the end, they dance in remembrance, but not remembrance of one person. They dance for spiritual connection, for unity, for culture, for family, and to stay strong in the face of tragedy. In a world where you’re constantly reminded that you don’t matter, and many pretend you don’t exist, a Pow-wow is a place where one can be seen and heard among people who understand you. That is the Fancy Dance.
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