Fancy Dance Review: Heartfelt Performances Ground This Native Tale of Grief and Love

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance"

When Lily Gladstone didn’t win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Killers of the Flower Moon, many movie fans wanted to know what was next for her. Would she get another chance to make Academy Award history?

Although Fancy Dance is unlikely to be the project that helps her sweep award season next year, her quietly powerful performance reaffirms that Gladstone will be a force to be reckoned with on movie screens for years to come.

Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance"
Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo: Apple TV+)

Though the film is billed as something of a crime thriller — the story’s inciting incident is the disappearance of an Indigenous woman whose case the authorities seem uninterested in solving — at its heart Fancy Dance is a family drama, albeit one that’s primarily focused on the unique challenges and compromises of Native life in America.

Gladstone stars as Jax Goodiron, a woman who lives on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma and is attempting to turn her life around. But though she’s given up drug dealing, her life is still one largely lived on the fringe of both respectability and the law, mixing petty theft and overt grifting with selling bait, herbs, or other scavenged knick-knacks to make ends meet.

She’s also been looking after her teen niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olsen) since the disappearance of the girl’s mother Wadatawi.  Jax’s sister vanished several weeks prior, and despite her best efforts no one, be it Tribal PD or the FBI, seems terribly interested in helping find her.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance"
Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo: Apple TV+)

Part of this is because Tawi has a history of irresponsible behavior, but it’s also because law enforcement simply doesn’t take the needs of those living on the reservation seriously. There are squabbles over jurisdictional questions, as well as a vaguely foreboding sense that everyone already knows the search will prove a fruitless one.

Fancy Dance forthrightly reckons with the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in America, depicting Jax as stuck between an uncaring bureaucracy and a justice system with a long history of ignoring — or outright damaging — Indigenous families and culture.

Gladstone’s performance strikes a deft balance between stoicism and anxiety as Jax is torn between performing optimism for her niece and her ever-present awareness that the longer this case goes on, the more unlikely it is that they’ll ever get any answers.

And though we never meet Tawi onscreen, director Erica Tremblay still manages to fill the movie with her presence, allowing us to “see” the character who isn’t there via the hole she’s left behind.

Desperate to find the truth (as well as closure for herself and her niece), Jax takes much of the investigation into Tawi’s disappearance into her own hands, from plastering the town outside the reservations with missing person posters to interrogating some of her former contacts in the drug trade.

It’s all dangerous, of course, but there’s an almost claustrophobic sense that Jax doesn’t have another choice.

Isabel Deroy-Olson in “Fancy Dance"
Isabel Deroy-Olsonin “Fancy Dance”

As for Roki, the girl fervently believes that Tawi will reappear in time for the annual tribal powwow in Oklahoma City and its mother-daughter dance, in which the pair once captivated the crowd. Jax has promised to take her to the event, and nowhere is her love for her niece more apparent than in her insistence that there’s a real chance they’ll find Tawi there.

The heart of Fancy Dance is found in the relationship between these two characters, who are close enough that you might believe they were the mother-daughter pair at the center of this story.  As a pivotal scene between the two reveals, the Cayugan word for “aunt” means “small mother”, and their bond clearly reflects that.

Deroy-Olsonin and Gladstone have fantastic chemistry with one another, whether they’re shoplifting or reminiscing about Jax’s own days dancing at the pow-wow Roki now attends. The two shift in and out of English and Cayugan frequently, a practice the movie uses to great effect when the pair clearly wants to say something that’s not meant for white ears.

When Child Protective Services decides that Jax isn’t a fit guardian for Roki due to her criminal record, the girl is taken to live with her (white) grandfather (Shea Whigham)  and his new wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski).

Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes, Fancy Dance only briefly touches on the complexity of this particular subplot, in which Frank and Nancy seem to want to raise Roki themselves, and Jax fears what taking her niece away from her culture and heritage might mean.

(Of course, the unspoken question of whether that’s better or worse for the girl than being raised to be a thief and a scammer — albeit one with a community support system — remains up to the audience to answer.)

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance"
Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo: Apple TV+)

In many ways, the introduction of Frank and Nancy seems to be little more than a catalyst to force  Roki and Jax to go on the run together, a clunky twist that sees them both pursued by police and committing more overt crimes in a third act that rapidly becomes overstuffed with too many plot elements.

Determined to keep her promise to get Roki to the pow-wow, Jax ultimately ends up stealing her father’s car and “kidnapping” her niece (at least in the eyes of law enforcement). Fancy Dance is clearly sympathetic to the systemic issues that somehow brand the woman who loves her most as a threat to her niece’s safety, their road trip together allows Gladstone and Deroy-Olson’s onscreen bond to shine.

As the danger around the duo escalates, a real sense of danger looms — not just that Jax might lose custody of her niece, but that either of them might genuinely lose their lives on this odyssey. (A tense run-in with an ICE officer who assumes they’re illegal immigrants he might need to have deported is just one of the threats the two face.)

The film’s occasionally overstuffed third act also tries to do a little too much, cramming in everything from familiar coming-of-age tropes and a dangerous manhunt to a literal Chekov’s gun that looms over the girls’ journey like a silent threat.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance"
Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo: Apple TV+)

Fancy Dance’s ending will also likely divide viewers. To be fair, its final scenes are beautiful both literally and figuratively. Jax and Roki share a heartfelt, deeply meaningful moment that both honors their relationship with one another and their shared grief for Tawi. It’s the sort of scene that will stay with you long after the film’s final credits roll.

But its final act is also contrived and busy, and its decision to purposefully end on a note of joy feels at odds with the bleak reality of the rest of the film. Though we’ve learned Tawi’s fate, we’re left to wonder about what becomes of Jax and Roki beyond this brief interlude of cathartic emotion.

In reality, the answer is probably jail and a forced relocation to her grandfather’s custody, but Tremblay seems content to let her audience sit with that harsh truth on their own.

But perhaps there’s something to be said for the decision to end Fancy Dance at its most hopeful and communal, affirming that, even at both women’s lowest point, they’re always part of something larger than themselves.

Fancy Dance is now streaming on Apple TV+. 

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