Fancy Dance, indigenous drama reflects lived reality

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in Fancy Dance

Fancy Dance is a heartbreaking tale about missing and murdered indigenous women, taking care of family, and surviving as an indigenous woman in the United States. Lily Gladstone stars in a beautiful performance with talented young Isabel Deroy-Olson playing her 13 year old niece.

Fancy Dance begins with Jax (Lily Gladstone) searching for her missing sister. She’s been missing two weeks. During that time, Jax has cared for her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) and promised that she’d see her mother again at an upcoming powwow. Roki wants to do the mother daughter dance with her mom.

Jax and Roki are a well developed team as they steal wallets, phones, gas, even cars, with practiced ease. They sell what they take to add to the pow wow fund.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in Fancy Dance

Jax talks to everyone she sees about her missing sister. Her brother JJ (Ryan Begay) is the reservation police. He has no authority in the case of the missing sister. Instead the case is in the hands of the FBI, who are doing nothing.

Jax is a lesbian, on the tough looking, unintimidated side of lesbian. On her own, Jax finds clues. One comes from her girlfriend. One comes from the guy who buys her stolen goods. One comes from the local drug dealer and some scary drug buyers at a man camp. She calls JJ and the FBI every day and tells them what she’s learned.

Roki’s white grandfather and her white step grandmother (Shea Whigham and Audrey Wasilewski) show up on the reservation to take Roki away from Jax and back to their house. They have the Oklahoma child services people behind them.

Jax is determined to get Roki to that pow wow. She goes to her father’s house and takes Roki away. They call the police. Soon there’s an Amber Alert for Roki. Now the FBI is after Jax instead of looking for the missing woman.

I don’t want to reveal any more spoilers about the story. It’s mesmerizing as the details play out. Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone both do outstanding work in their parts. Lily Gladstone hits the emotional notes with perfection in every scene. The final moments of the film are both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone on the Fancy Dance poster

This is a native story. It’s told from that point of view. The characters often speak Cayuga to each other. They observe rituals from their culture while struggling to live in the culture of their colonizers. Bitter experience has taught them that people in authority are their enemies.

Fancy Dance was co-written and directed by Erica Tremblay who is from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation. The film was told with grace and elegance. It clearly illustrates the issues facing women living on the reservation. The characters aren’t painted with a glowing brush. Failings and foibles are on display as clearly as strength and ingenuity.

You can stream the film on Apple TV+. It is definitely worth a watch.

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