Marking the directorial debut feature of Seneca–Cayuga American filmmaker Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance stars Killers of the Flower Moon actress Lily Gladstone as Jax, who has been the caregiver of niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) while looking for her missing sister. However, Jax risks losing custody of her niece to her father Frank (Shea Whigham) due to their criminal past so both she and Roki venture to find her sister before a pending powwow.
Set around the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma, Jax and Roki survive by committing petty crimes and selling off their ill-gotten gains. Along with the local community, they search and pray for the safe return of Roki’s mother, as she has been missing for several weeks without explanation. What doesn’t help is the lack of cooperation from the authorities, not to mention Jax’s cop brother JJ (Ryan Bengay), all of whom seem to disregard her disappearance without suspicion. The fact that they won’t consider Jax’s missing persons case until Roki is reported missing by Frank, a Caucasian male, highlights the unspoken racism that is rife in modern America but changes the film into a race against time – no longer to find Roki’s mother before the powwow but for Jax and Roki to escape the authorities.
In addition, the plot element of Roki’s “kidnap” becoming the sole focus of the drama slowly overrides the cultural significance of Fancy Dance. Roki’s anticipation of the powwow fuels her hope that her mum will return, especially as they are reigning champions and it is a quietly significant event that has reinforced their bond – to the point that she is making an outfit for her to wear. But when Jax and Roki go on the run, the small glimpse of their heritage feels pushed aside for mainstream convention, effectively diluting the intimate look into the community that is mildly introduced in the first act.
Meanwhile, the sudden appearance of Frank quickly jeopardises Roki’s Cayuga upbringing as he is assigned to become Roki’s legal guardian. While Jax being resentful about him abandoning the family, he and new wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski) seek to sanitise Roki’s upbringing to a White suburban home, where they encourage family dinners and ballet classes to “replace” her simple life. These small interactions add to the film’s underlying racist tones but dilutes the cultural and personal significance of Tremblay’s story – a confusing direction considering the personal resonance of this project for the first-time filmmaker. Combined with the thriller notes created by them hiding from the police, this change in narrative sends a mixed message of what this film represents so audiences do not know whether to empathise with Jax’s plight regarding her sister or support their escape.
Thankfully, the performances stabilise Fancy Dance. Also serving as executive producer, Lily Gladstone is a pillar of strength as she leads the charge via her strong-willed performance as Jax, displaying a determination in finding her sister while caring for her niece, as well as ensuring that their Seneca-Cayuga heritage isn’t forgotten – a prominent element in Tremblay and Miciana Alise’s screenplay. In her first feature film performance, Deroy-Olson establishes herself as a promising young talent as Roki, exuding an innocence and naivety that sees her become a victim of her fractured family.
Overall, Fancy Dance struggles to find its feet as a cultural education while retaining the conventions of a mainstream thriller but Gladstone and Deroy-Olson’s subtle performances keep it steady.
Director: Erica Tremblay, Miciana Alise (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Ryan Begay, Shea Whigham, Audrey Wasilewski
Runtime: 90 minutes