Lily Gladstone gives yet another powerhouse performance in Erica Tremblay’s quietly devastating drama, Fancy Dance, in which Gladstone stars as Jax, who is left to look after her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), when Jax’s sister disappears.
Tremblay, making her narrative feature debut, fills her film with the quiet spaces between two people who know each other back to front, and Jax and Roki communicate in a mix of stares, Seneca, and English, yet always seem to be speaking a language all their own. Jax is tough, hardened by circumstance growing up in the Seneca-Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma, with an absent father and a flighty sister, Tawi, whose latest disappearance has a sinister feel that has Jax genuinely worried this time.
Roki, though, is not yet as tough as her auntie, though she is good at the many hustles Jax engages in to make ends meet, boosting cars and shoplifting without second thought. Roki is saving money for the annual powwow in Oklahoma City, where she and her mother dance together in fancy dance competitions, but this year, with Tawi missing, the trip is in jeopardy. Things become more precarious when Frank (Shea Whigham, in another very Shea Whigham role), Jax’s absentee father, gets involved. For Frank brings with him the most frightening villain you will see on screen all year—a well-meaning white woman named Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski).
The minute Frank and Nancy show up at Jax’s house on the rez, you know things are about to go to sh-t. Tremblay, who also wrote the script with Miciana Alise, nails the unique bitterness of white people who live near Native land, and Nancy’s efforts at sincerity are coated in assumed superiority and thoughtless entitlement. She calls Roki’s fancy dance regalia a “costume”, and offers Roki ballet shoes, thinking ballet lessons are an adequate substitute for missing the powwow. Frank and Nancy are the kind of people who say things like, “We know how important maintaining your culture is,” and then in the next breath say they can’t go to the powwow because they have “things to do around the house”. Within one interaction, it is blatantly apparent Frank and Nancy simply are not going to value Roki’s roots, no matter what lip service they pay to honoring her culture.
But Nancy is definitely The Worst because she insists on calling the cops when Jax takes Roki from their house to go to the powwow anyway, and try to find Tawi along the way. Frank has enough sense to know this is a bad idea, but Nancy’s insistence that calling the cops is the right thing to do dooms the whole family. Fancy Dance doesn’t even need to show the inevitable conclusion, you KNOW getting the cops after Jax is going to irreparably ruin her life, and Frank knows it, too. The cutaways to Frank and Nancy are not nearly as gripping as Jax and Roki’s roadtrip through Oklahoma, but Whigham does a great job playing a man melting into a puddle of remorse in real time, looking worse with every subsequent appearance on screen as his asshole wife’s machinations blow what’s left of his family to pieces. NANCY SUCKS. She can eat salad with Nate from Ted Lasso.
Most of the film, though, is centered on Jax and Roki navigating their trip together, while Jax subtly investigates Tawi’s disappearance. Ryan Begay plays a tribal cop frustrated by jurisdictional posturing that leaves him little room to actually investigate Tawi’s disappearance, or help Jax in any meaningful way with the state authorities who come for Roki. It’s a constant frustration, that the wheels of justice only move against Jax, never with her, and the sense of a trap closing grows stronger even as Jax grows closer with her search for Tawi.
Fancy Dance isn’t interested in platitudes that any of this is going to be okay—nothing is going to turn out well for anyone. But Fancy Dance is also about Jax and Roki and their unbreakable bond, and Tremblay, Gladstone, and Deroy-Olson offer a cathartic ending that, despite yet more tragedy looming, celebrate Jax and Roki and how far they’ve come together. It’s a beautiful moment snatched between the small tragedies that define Jax’s life. The hope remains that Roki might yet escape that cycle—even though f-cken Nancy probably doomed her, too—and Fancy Dance takes flight in its final moments of grace. As always when it comes to Lily Gladstone and her work, Fancy Dance is not to be missed.
Attached: Lily at Sundance last week.