Sundance 2023: FANCY DANCE

Lily Gladstone takes the lead in this intense mystery.

Fancy Dance, filmed on the Cherokee Nation reservation, debuted at Sundance this weekend. Indigenous director Erica Tremblay deftly infuses modern day crises and historic wrongs into her film (co-written with Miciana Alise) about a young woman searching for her missing sister and trying to keep her niece close. Lily Gladstone (Certain Women, The Unknown Country) delivers the type of understated performance she does best as the fiercely determined Jax. Her character is thrown by the choices of her father Frank (Shea Whigham, Take Shelter, Agent Carter) and stuck in such a bad situation that she neglects to give due consideration to her next move.

Jax and her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson in her cinematic debut) are getting by on the reservation, hustling for what they can. Jax’s sister Tawi has been missing for weeks and federal authorities are little help. The powwow, where Tawi and Roki usually participate in the mother-daughter dance, is coming up; Jax tries to keep Roki’s hopes up about her mother while leading her own investigation into her sister’s disappearance. Then Jax and Tawi’s white father gets involved and things go further awry.

As the state chooses to place Roki temporarily with Frank and his current wife, who live off the reservation, the audience is reminded that the removal of Indigenous children from their culture is a contemporary issue as well as a historical occurrence. The organized statewide search for Roki after she leaves town with her aunt serves as a sharp contrast to the small volunteer search parties looking for Tawi. Jax and Roki primarily speak their native Cayuga language to each other, exhibiting the tight bond between them. Large significance is placed on ritual and connection throughout Fancy Dance, from the dance at the powwow to the rites performed when Roki gets her first period.

The lighting and framing of shots in Tremblay’s film also add a sort of reverence to the characters and their plight, as Roki is silhouetted against the light from the TV or Jax is framed in a doorway after a tense conversation with her brother JJ (Ryan Begay, Rutherford Falls, Dark Winds). With Gladstone’s heartbreaking performance and a gripping screenplay, Fancy Dance serves as an impressive introduction to a new voice in feature film.

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