Fancy Dance

With her sister Tawi (Hauli Gray) missing and almost certainly dead, Jax (Lily Gladstone) is determined to bring up her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) within their Native American Indian traditions, including the mother daughter performance that is part of an upcoming pow wow she’s been assuring the young girl her mother will be at.  But when a social worker uncovers Jax’s arrest record and custody is given to Jax’s white father Frank (Shea Whigham) and his second wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), Jax kidnaps the girl to take her to the “Fancy Dance.”

Laura's Review: B-

After launching at Sundance and playing various film festivals throughout 2023, “Fancy Dance” is receiving a very limited theatrical release, presumably on the strength of Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone’s raised profile, before premiering on Apple TV+ in the U.S.   Backed by a largely female crew, cowriter (with the film's makeup artist, Miciana Alise)/director Erica Tremblay’s (TV's 'Reservation Dogs') film works best illustrating how cultural rituals help maintain family ties and how even tribal police fail to give priority to the epidemic of missing Native American women.  But while the film’s performances are strong across the board, Jax and Roki’s journey becomes increasingly far fetched, the film finding triumph in its superb closing moments.

Tremblay quickly sketches in Jax and Tawi’s tough lifestyles by connecting them through the strip club Jax receives a lap dance at while inquiring about her sister who used to work there.  Back in the family home Roki dons a fringed lilac spandex jacket while attempting to walk in clear platform stripper heels, a perversion of her ancestry.  A visit from Frank reveals that he left the reservation when Jax and Tawi’s mother died.  Jax convinces him to make a call to the F.B.I. to officially get his other daughter declared missing, Frank finally recognizing that the situation is dire.

But while he and his wife attempt to make life comfortable for Roki when they’re given custody, Jax relegated to supervised visits, they will not commit to bringing her to the pow wow Roki has her heart set on.  Jax pays a visit to local drug dealer Boo (Blayne Allen) to sell some product to make money and learns her sister had done the same when she pulls out the Missing photo she’s always ready to share (and which is received with a rude joke by Boo’s crew).  She then makes her way to her dad’s house, gets Roki out through her bedroom window and ‘borrows’ Frank’s car.  After their departure, her tribal cop uncle JJ (Ryan Begay, TV's 'Dark Winds') tries to keep Frank from escalating the situation, but an Amber alert is issued, and while Jax keeps in touch with him, it is to report the details she’s learned about Tawi’s disappearance.

We’ve seen plenty of movies about an adult on the run with a kidnapped child, most recently with Tony Goldwyn’s “Ezra,” “Fancy Dance’s” main distinguishing feature its Native American perspective.   But while Gladstone is touching as she plunges herself between a rock and a hard place trying to find out what happened to her sister while caring for niece, we really didn’t need Chekhov’s gun principle put to the test, let alone raised in the first place, a bit of over-the-top third act drama.  Finally spurred into action by Jax , JJ’s solving of Tawi’s case is a bit muddled, a red truck found in a scrap metal lot somehow telling him everything he needs to know but leaving us in the dark.

“Fancy Dance” ends on a joyous note of communion between Jax and Roki, but it is bittersweet, the act of rebellion necessary to obtain it something likely to follow both for many years to come.  It is a depressing finale for a film celebrating cultural bonding.

Robin's Review: B

Jax’s (Lily Gladstone), following the disappearance of her sister, must take care of her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). When the girl’s grandfather (Shea Wiggam) demands custody, Jax takes Roki on a journey to find her mother and attend a sacred pow-wow in “Fancy Dance.”

When her sister, Tawi, disappeared, Jax demanded that the law get involved in finding the missing woman. But, yet another indigenous woman disappearing is nothing new and neither the Feds nor the local cops do much of anything. Jax, despite the custody decision, takes Roki, against the law, to find her mother and attend the important sacred dance.

First time feature director and writer Erica Tremblay (with co-writer Miciana Alise) makes a strong statement in this surrogate mother-daughter story where Jax, through circumstance becomes the mother of her niece. Despite the bumps in the road the two women must endure, the family bond remains strong throughout.

Lily Gladstone gives, I think, a more layered performance than in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” but that, I think, is because this is a stronger character overall. She is a ne’er-do-well type, always looking for a buck, honest or not. It is usually not. She also has an influence on Roki, something that will come into play later and not well.

This is powerful message about the plague of killed and missing indigenous woman in America and what is being done about it – or not. The story shows the determination of a woman to do what is right for her family. It also shows the lack of determination in law enforcement and government to also do what is right for these women.

Unfortunately, while “Fancy Dance” has the right message, I fear it is a cry in the dark against that unprecedented epidemic that plagues native American women in this country. Deaf ears comes to mind.

Apple releases "Fancy Dance" in select theaters on 6/21/24.  It begins streaming on Apple TV+ on 6/28/24.