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Review: ‘Fancy Dance’ conducts a triumphant song of family and humanity around a limitless Lily Gladstone

Isabel DeRoy-Olson is a revelation in Erica Tremblay's Indigenous drama.

At the 2023 IndieWire Honors Awards Ceremony in December, Lily Gladstone was the recipient of the Performance Award for their work in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon as Mollie Burkhart.

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In their acceptance speech, the actress was all too happy to honor the performance that they felt was “the absolute highlight of my career, the best work I feel like I’ve ever done, the most important story, elevating the awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, missing and murdered sisters, working with the greatest, most visionary, most committed director of my life, working with somebody who I love very dearly and had the best chemistry I’ve had with somebody onscreen. The greatest love story that I’ve ever told in my career.”

But Lily Gladstone wasn’t talking about Flower Moon. They were talking about Fancy Dance, the narrative feature debut of Seneca-Cayuga filmmaker Erica Tremblay, known primarily for her documentary shorts Tiny Red Universe, Heartland: A Portrait of Survival, and In the Turn. At the time of the speech, Fancy Dance had not secured distribution of any kind. Apple TV Plus — which also distributed Scorsese’s film — acquired the rights to the film back in February. It released the film on streaming earlier today, and now that the wider world can see Fancy Dance for themselves, Gladstone’s words will ring as profoundly as ever.

Flower Moon flew on the wings of technical mastery, a juggernaut loaded with star power and prestige, but it harbored a perspective that — while good-intentioned — was ultimately not that of the Osage Nation, e.g., the very people it sought justice for. Fancy Dance, by contrast, doesn’t seem terribly interested in using its runtime to take colonialism to task. Maybe it doesn’t need to; colonial practices like those depicted in Flower Moon invite lacerating criticism, whatever their context. Instead, Fancy Dance operates with a softer but sharper authenticity, one that arises from a Native filmmaker who celebrates, and meditates on, a kaleidoscope’s-worth of emotion and experience in every line, frame, and story beat.

The film stars Gladstone as Jax, a Seneca-Cayuga woman who lives on the reservation with her niece, Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson). Roki’s mother and Jax’s sister, Tawi, has joined the seemingly endless ranks of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We watch as Jax juggles preparations for an upcoming powwow while providing for Roki, and searching for her sister. When CPS intervenes and threatens to take Roki from the reservation and place her with her white father, Frank (Shea Whigham), Jax and Roki take off on an impromptu road trip in search of Tawi, whom they hope to find in time for the powwow, and so that Roki can stay with her Indigenous family.

Right from the opening scene, it’s evident where Fancy Dance stands; in the wake of colonial fallout whose immensity is matched only by the immovability of Indigenous spirit. It’s unapologetic about the realities of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but it doesn’t want you to feel bad — or more precisely, not to feel bad as a punishment, but because that feeling might be a stepping stone; one that will hopefully lead to seeing — really seeing — the damage that so many institutions continue to wreak on the lives of Native people.

Under colonial parameters, Indigenous people are backed into a corner in which they must survive, but are subsequently punished for trying to survive. In Fancy Dance, this manifests most severely in CPS trying to take Roki away from Jax, and in the wedge that’s later driven between Jax and Roki because of the circumstances that they’re being forced into. In these circumstances, family and tribal bonds of togetherness are dissolved by force, which is tremendously harmful to individual Native people, and Indigenous cultures as a whole.

The chief emotion that Fancy Dance evokes, however, is hope. It expresses anger towards brutal, systemic, ongoing colonialism and the people who perpetuate it, to be sure, but a more prevalent element is the way its plot encourages us to think about how things could have been different, had settlers learned from Indigenous people, rather than attempting to wipe out their cultures altogether. This, in turn, encourages viewers to think about how they could incorporate Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing into their lives now.

It’s through the young DeRoy-Olson that Fancy Dance demonstrates this — the Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing — most effectively. As she tries to explain the meaning of powwows to her white step-grandmother Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), Roki’s body language is a revelation; she may not explain that meaning verbally, because that meaning is not meant to be explained through words. That Nancy thought of powwows as more or less equivalent to ballet lessons is just one of the many ways in which Fancy Dance examines the gulf that still exists between Native and non-Native thinking, and it’s all done with an abundance of internal and external grace at the hands of Tremblay. To think that this is the writer-director’s first narrative feature boggles the mind.

And speaking of DeRoy-Olson — and, prior to that, of hope — the young actress positively flourishes as Roki. There’s a certain maturity that she balances with her youth; she’s able to evoke Roki’s narrative purpose as a character, while still making her believable. This alone is impressive, but she also portrays adolescent rawness and vulnerability enough for us to recognize that Roki —and the culture she represents — must be cherished and nurtured unwaveringly, now more than ever. DeRoy-Olson is worthy of the exact commendation that Lily Gladstone bestowed upon her in her IndieWire speech, and she’s riveting to watch.

That, dear readers, brings us back to Lily Gladstone, whose screen presence defies explanation. As Jax, Gladstone is both mountain and climber, necessarily vulnerable and fluidly determined, flawed and uncompromising, capable of great pain and greater laughter. To love Jax, and to love Gladstone, is to love love itself. The utter justice that Gladstone metes out to Jax, Fancy Dance, and the world around them is an honor to behold.

There should be no question that Indigenous stories need to be told by Indigenous voices. Scorsese can show us Osage blood on white hands, which may do wonders for the specific discomfort that white folks can and should feel about Native American history, but Fancy Dance — an Indigenous story, primarily about Indigenous people, told primarily by Indigenous artists — is interested in pure love, and pure love just happens to run counter to the world that was forced upon Indigenous people long (but not too long) ago. That power is immaculate in every scene.

So thank you Gladstone, thank you DeRoy-Olson, and thank you Tremblay for what you stand for; it is universal, and it is essential.

Fancy Dance
The awe-inspiring strength of 'Fancy Dance' is as softly sensational as it is proudly singular, and Gladstone is breathtaking throughout; Indigenous voices are a necessity to filmmaking.

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Charlotte Simmons
Charlotte is a freelance writer for We Got This Covered, a graduate of St. Thomas University's English program, a fountain of film opinions, and probably the single biggest fan of Peter Jackson's 'King Kong.' She has written professionally since 2018, and will tackle an idiosyncratic TikTok story with just as much gumption as she does a film review.