A moving drama that bleeds with emotion; “FANCY DANCE”

Director Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance” aligns its warm heart with the many Indigenous Women who have been missing and murdered without finding justice and with the living women who must navigate the world where the racist American system casts them as persona non grata.

Written by Tremblay and Miciana Alise, this engaging and moving picture is set on the Seneca Cayuga Reservation in northeast Oklahoma. The reservation is what the American government wanted these places to be. There are few jobs and fewer opportunities for the Native American residents who already have an unstable relationship with the nearby non-indigenous communities. As with every reservation, the consequences of the government’s abandonment of the Native American people is evident everywhere. Carolina Costa’s camera captures both the depressed economic surroundings, while allowing the beauty of the Oklahoma land (and the Indigenous people) to exist.

It is on the Seneca Cayuga Reservation that we find Jax (a tremendous Lily Gladstone), whose sister, Tawi, has been missing for two weeks. The authorities don’t seem to care, and until she is found and the mystery of her disappearance is solved, Tawi’s daughter Roki (the equally excellent Isabel Deroy-Olson) is living with her Auntie Jax.

Roki desperately wants to attend the yearly powwow, hoping her mother will turn up, as she has never missed one. The screenplay finds real emotional power in Auntie and Niece aching for Tawi’s return. Young Roki has the privilege of youth on her side, which allows her the glimmer of hope for her mother’s return. Jax is more realistic. The trail of unsolved cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women makes Jax fear the worst, but she soldiers on, refusing to allow her sister to be another lost footnote in American history.

After a white female childcare worker does a surprise inspection to check on Roki’s well-being, the court decides she must live with her white grandparents (Shea Whigham and Audrey Wasilewski), as Jax has a criminal record for drug dealing, another casualty of the lack of economic opportunities on the rez. Roki is estranged from them, and they don’t seem comfortable having their granddaughter become a more significant part of their lives. For them, it would be just fine to make a few emotionless visits now and again.

Having the white woman and the white courts decide the fate of a Native American child connects to the long and ugly history of White America splitting up Native American families and forcing the children to live under a White roof. These actions damage psyches and destroy families. Jax is proud of her heritage and the people on the reservation and doesn’t want her niece to be disconnected from her roots. Realizing how bad things could get, Jax takes a willing Roki in the middle of the night, and the two embark on a trip to the powwow, both desperately wanting to solve the mystery of their missing loved one.

Gladstone inhabits Jax with a quiet power as the character moves through a cruel America that cares not for the issues of its Indigenous populations. The screenplay crafts her as representative of many Native American women who struggle for identity and respect, and Gladstone wears their pain with every breath. As the final act finds Jax falling further victim to a system molded to ignore Native Americans, this talented actress does the strongest work of her career. Giving another incredibly moving performance, Gladstone’s work as Jax is a performance I’ll not soon forget.

“Fancy Dance” is a film of many layers. It is powerful and quite moving, but the most affecting aspect is the unbreakable familial bonds between these Indigenous women, even the ones who are no longer here.

Director Tremblay has made a film of gravitas and devastating truths. Jax and Roki’s journey is dangerous, yet one that becomes an intimate and revealing lesson in self-worth and the history of Jax and Roxi’s people.

“Aunt” translates to “Little Mother” in the Cayuga language. For many, it becomes “Second Mother” due to the disappearances of so many mothers and the children being forced to live with other family members while the local authorities continue to do nothing to solve anything Native American-related.

Supported by the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab, this film is crafted with intimacy, care, and respect and honors all Indigenous women and their struggles.

“Fancy Dance” is a moving drama that bleeds with emotion.

Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, and Shea Wigham share moments of purity in their performances that will break your heart. Erica Tremblay’s film will move your soul.

Film premieres on Hulu on June 28th

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