The Brilliantly Performed 'Fancy Dance' Has a Few Too Many Steps

Directed by Erica Tremblay

Starring Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Shea Whigham, Ryan Begay, Crystle Lightning, Audrey Wasilewski

Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

BY Matthew Simpson Published Jun 21, 2024


Every year film festivals release a certain type of film — usually a drama starring an actor riding a wave of positive buzz (or established and trying to make a comeback), and they aim to tell a socially conscious and perhaps underseen story. These are, to use the vernacular, awards bait. These films tend to walk a fine line between schmaltzy and poignant, between cloyingly sweet and cynically dark, and more than one wrong step in either direction can result in disaster.

Consider Erica Tremblay's new feature, Fancy Dance, one of these films. Having premiered at Sundance last year, the film stars Lily Gladstone — fresh off her multi-award-winning appearance in Killers of the Flower Moon and the well-received miniseries Under the Bridge — as Jax, a Seneca-Cayuga woman living on a reservation in Oklahoma. Jax has been caring for her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), for the past several weeks since Roki's mother, Jax's sister Tawi, went missing.

They don't live in squalor, but certainly in poverty. Jax teaches Roki how to live off the land, and also how to shoplift and boost cars. It would be tempting to call these the actions of a fuckup, but in reality, they're the actions of the desperate. There are precious few jobs, and people have to live.

A complication arises when social services declares Jax unfit as a guardian and place Roki with her white grandparents, Frank and Nancy (Shea Whigam and Audrey Wasilewski). They're well-meaning enough, but despite reassurances of remaining connected to her culture, they've also removed Roki from her home and refuse to let her participate in this year's powwow, wanting to sign her up for ballet instead.

Tawi's presence, or lack thereof, hangs over the film. She's mixed up with some unsavoury types and has disappeared before, but never for this long and never without sending word. Roki is desperate to see her mother again and dance at the powwow, so Jax takes it upon herself to get Roki there by stealing Frank's car and absconding in the night. It's not the best plan, but it's the only one they have, as Jox is forbidden from doing anything with Roki unsupervised.

This road trip across the state makes up the bulk of the film, and it's where both Gladstone and Deroy-Olson shine. A film like this requires a believable connection between its leads, and these actors share that, with Tremblay coaxing great performances from her cast. Gladstone's Jax wrestles between wanting to give Roki what she wants and doing what's best for her, and between the life she has and the more traditional life she could be leading. Gladstone stuns, presenting both a shaky air of confidence and a vulnerability only betrayed by her eyes and body language, making Jax incredibly relatable.

In terms of young performers to keep an eye on, Deroy-Olsen should be top of that list. She has a natural presence that many actors with more experience under their belts don't capture so easily.

Carolina Costa's cinematography takes full advantage of both the countryside and the run-down neighbourhoods the story takes place in. Coupled with Tremblay's great eye, the film is really beautifully rendered.

Where the film breaks down, though, is in the script, as there's simply too much going on. Jax simultaneously kidnaps Roki for this road trip and investigates her sister's disappearance alongside her policeman half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay). While both of these stories compel in their own right, their parallel presentation means that neither develops as satisfyingly or with as much depth as one of them could on its own.

A good portion of the film is spoken in Cayuga, the Indigenous language of the Seneca-Cayuga people, which adds a layer of authenticity to the way the characters speak as they switch between languages depending on the context of what they are saying or who they are speaking to.

Fancy Dance doesn't fall into the usual traps of so-called awards-bait films; it's neither schmaltzy nor cloying, but it does land just shy of poignant as well. It isn't a poorly made film, or even a bad film at all. In fact, if we subscribe to the theory that the only important parts of a film are the first and last 20 minutes, then this might well be a masterpiece, but the overstuffed middle of the film brings it down from great to just good, despite all it has going for it.

(Apple TV+)

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