Fancy Dance (2023)

Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson in the Apple TV+ drama “Fancy Dance.”

Gladstone thrives in keeping ‘Fancy Dance’ in step

It says a lot about the entertainment industry that “Fancy Dance,” a serviceable tale about the perpetual strife of Indigenous Oklahomans, sat for more than a year without a distribution deal. That it’s finally hitting screens is likely attributable to its star, Lily Gladstone, being fresh off an Oscar nomination for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” That’s great, but it makes you wonder how many movies of similar content struggle for release in a political climate where books and films critical of America are under attack.

So, kudos to Apple TV+ for bravely stepping up to accord writer-director Erica Tremblay’s debut feature a theatrical run this week before adding it to its streaming content June 28. It’s well worth seeing, too. Not just because it stars the amazing Gladstone, but because it sheds much-needed light on a place, the Seneca-Cayuga reservation, where hope and opportunity are pretty much nonexistent.

It’s a hard truth that 13-year-old Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) has yet to fully absorb, largely because she’s been well shielded by her mother, Tawi, and auntie, Jax (Gladstone). But reality sets in once Tawi goes missing and Roki and Jax venture into white society on what is clearly becoming a futile search for Mom.

That, plus a budding custody fight between Jax and her estranged white father, Frank (Shea Whigham), form the barebones plot in which Tremblay seeks to explore Jax’s tireless fight to preserve a proud Native American culture she feels is under threat of a federal government ambivalent toward a seemingly invisible community.

What Tremblay exposes isn’t surprising, but to witness firsthand the utter lack of choices available to Native women – drug mule or exotic dancer – is enlightening. As is the low esteem projected upon them by the folks in authority, be it law enforcement or child protection services. So it’s hardly shocking that Jax has become so implacably jaded, justifying a total lack of contrition over her petty crimes against the “man.”

What’s bad is that she’s allowing it to influence Roki, who is literally becoming her partner in crime. The actual act of conspiring to boost cars, steal gas and shoplift isn’t as shocking as how cavalierly these offenses are committed. But can you blame them for stealing from the people who stole so freely from their ancestors? There wasn’t much remorse over that crime, either.

You find yourself almost rooting for the pair, while another part of you is alarmed by the negative impact Jax is having on Roki. It’s a sentiment shared by Jax’s dad. The longer Roxi’s mom remains missing, the more Frank is compelled to force the state to grant him custody, much to Jax’s ire. She does nothing to disguise her disdain for Pops, who abandoned her, Tawi and their Native mom when they were young. It’s a significant reason why she has zero trust in white folks, especially the ones affiliated with law enforcement.

Tremblay enables you to experience the depth of those betrayals, as well as Jax’s self-defeating attempts to fight back. Like said ancestors, she’s greatly outnumbered and lacks the clout and firepower to adequately respond. It results in a feeling of utter hopelessness that permeates every frame.

That’s why it’s a bit disappointing that Tremblay segues into a preposterous third act in which Jax and Roki take it on the lam, partly in search of Tawi, but more in search of what Jax envisions as justice. She not only seeks it for herself, but also for her sister and for all the lives with little value in the eyes of their oppressors. Tremblay’s points are valid, but they would have been weightier if she had not indulged in so many Hollywood tropes.

It not only undercuts the message, but it also does a disservice to the flawless performances by Gladstone and Deroy-Olson. The duo displays potent chemistry, but it’s the ease with which they disappear into their characters that so astounds. The bond the two share is affecting and inspiring – until becoming tenuous toward the final stage.

As for the supporting players, only Whigham registers, and that’s just barely. It’s even worse for Audrey Wasilewski as Frank’s second wife, Nancy; Ryan Begay as Jax’s half-brother, JJ, a reservation cop; and Crystle Lightning as Jax’s ad-hoc lover, a stripper named Sapphire. They serve more as devices to advance the plot than actual individuals.

No matter, it’s Gladstone you come to see. Building upon her fine work in “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the undervalued “Certain Women,” Gladstone establishes herself as one of the premiere actresses of her generation. I pray Hollywood’s legacy of underrepresenting Native Americans in general and Native women in particular doesn’t deprive her of more opportunities. She’s done her part, now do yours.

Movie review

Fancy Dance

Rated: R for language, some drug content and sexual material

Cast: Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Shea Whigham, Ryan Begay and Crystle Lightning

Director: Erica Tremblay

Writer: Erica Tremblay

Runtime: 91 minutes

Where: In theaters June 21 and on Apple TV+ June 28

Grade: B

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