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Fancy Dance film review: Formidable family bonds

Two girls walk looking at each other and smiling in the film Fancy Dance

Fancy Dance is a poignant film that explores unyielding family bonds, and discrimination Native American communities face regarding missing person cases.

Director: Erica Tremblay
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 90′
US Release: June 21, 2024 in select US theaters
Global Release: June 28, 2024
Where to watch: Apple TV+

As I sat in my chair after Fancy Dance concluded, my first thought was how impressed I was that this was Erica Tremblay’s first feature film. Integrating mystery, crime, and drama with themes of unbreakable family bonds and injustice, the movie is a poignant and eye-opening look at the devastating discrimination Indigenous communities face and one woman’s relentless pursuit for answers.

After Roki’s (Isabel Deroy-Olson) mother goes missing unexpectedly, Jax (Lily Gladstone, of Killers of the Flower Moon) becomes her niece’s guardian, and the pair live on the Oklahoma Seneca Cayuga reservation. When Tawi’s case is cast aside by the authorities, Jax has no choice but to assume control of the situation and uncover her sister’s whereabouts. Things spiral when Roki is sent to live with her grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham, of Eileen) due to Jax’s criminal record, which makes her ineligible to become Roki’s legal guardian. Eager to spend more time with her niece and take her to the local powwow as promised, Jax kidnaps Roki, but it’s only a matter of time before law enforcement catches up to them.

Gladstone is one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood right now, and Fancy Dance demonstrates her indisputable range. Jax is a bold, strong-willed woman, willing to take matters into her own hands. She will do whatever it takes to find her sister, as the justice system has failed her family so miserably. Gladstone gives a moving, gripping performance, showcasing the emotional turmoil an individual faces when attempting to locate a missing loved one while also serving as a surrogate mother figure to Roki. Though Jax conceals the truth from her niece, she does so to safeguard her from bleak truths lurking behind the scenes.

Jax is an exceptionally well-written character with an authentic presence. She is persistent and determined, and the type of leading woman we need to see more often on the big screen. Jax has a complicated past and doesn’t always make the right choices, yet she is fiercely loyal to those she loves and has many layers. Roki and Tawi mean the world to her, and as her emotional journey unfolds throughout the film, you can’t resist rooting for her.

Isabel DeRoy-Olson also excels, reflecting Roki’s vulnerability, innocence, and moments of endearing maturity. However, Fancy Dance shines most whenever Gladstone and DeRoy-Olson are together on-screen. Jax and Roki’s relationship is so genuine and charming that you feel as though you’re watching a real-life connection between an aunt and niece. Even something as daunting as Roki getting her first period while the two are on the move becomes a heartwarming moment between the pair. Auntie Jax comes to the rescue by making her niece a pad out of bathroom supplies.

These are the types of moments that make Fancy Dance so special and relatable. It takes everyday interactions between relatives and allows the audience to live in each of these moments with the characters. Even the simplest of conversations between Jax and Roki draw you in because of their mutual respect, shared values, and the trust they have with one another. We can put ourselves in their shoes as we envision the close relationships we have with our family members and how deeply we cherish every laugh shared, every tear shed in their company, and every precious minute of quality time we have spent with them.

Fancy Dance also does a great job of balancing the kidnapping and crime drama storylines. Through the exploration of Tawi’s investigation from Jax’s point of view, the film educates viewers on the devastating discrimination that takes place against indigenous populations and the dismissal of missing person cases within their communities. It’s gut-wrenching to watch, but a reminder to us all that every human life is equally important, and should be treated as such.

Two girls cycle down the road in the film Fancy Dance
Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28. (Apple TV)

As a Native American who knows these types of stories all too well, Tremblay presents the material with meticulous care and unwavering passion. Viewers couldn’t have asked for a more sincere and unfiltered narrative than the one Fancy Dance delivers, with Gladstone giving us one of the best performances of the year. Though the feature’s ending may be bittersweet, its powerful final minutes will linger in your memory and bring you to tears.

Watch on Apple TV

Fancy Dance was released in select US theaters on June 21, 2024 and will be streaming globally on Apple TV+ from June 28.

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