Fancy Dance is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama about family bonds and the trials of Indigenous women: Sundance Film Festival

  • Harris Dang
  • January 30, 2023
  • Comments Off on Fancy Dance is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama about family bonds and the trials of Indigenous women: Sundance Film Festival

Set in present day Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma, Fancy Dance follows Jax (Lily Gladstone), a Native American swindler who hustles for a living while caring for her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), taken in following the sudden disappearance of her mother. With every spare moment spent trying to find the missing parent, time is running out for Jax, who is set to lose custody of Roki to her grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham). Acting on impulse, Jax takes Roki and hits the road, planning to track down Roki’s mother before the powwow celebrations commence.

Fancy Dance is the feature-length directorial debut for Erica Tremblay, who is best known for her work in the acclaimed TV series Reservation Dogs. Joining her is Reservation Dogs cast member Lily Gladstone, who is best known for her lead role in Kelly Reichardt’s anthology film Certain Women. With their latest project, they have devised a combined mystery and coming-of age narrative, which touches on the many trials that Indigenous women face. Whether it’s lack of support from the justice system, the rising numbers in missing/murdered Indigenous women, facing down white privilege and colonization attitudes, or the anti-Indigenous bias of police, Tremblay interweaves each of them into the narrative, adding plenty of dramatic punch.

And yet, Tremblay never overwhelms the narrative with that, instead lending true focus to the bond between Jax and Roki, and their character progression on the quest to find Roki’s mother. At the beginning of the movie, the relationship looks like it goes on a Paper Moon-esque route, as we see Roki being the distraction while Jax steals the money of the unsuspecting. The film is shot as if it was bathing in sunlight; projecting an almost whimsical view through its views on nature and its views on the co-dependency of the relationship. But when we see the living conditions, the contrast speaks volumes and easily gets the audience into the story.

The cast all give fantastic performances that are genuine, honest and never sugar-coat the predicaments they are in. Deroy-Olson displays a perfect sense of naivety, angst and maturity as a youngster on the brink of womanhood, while Gladstone’s Jax remains sympathetic even while her character makes some understandably questionable decisions motivated by frustration, anger, love, and despair.

Even though the narrative may take some predictable beats to get there, and the storytelling does resort to some contrivances for convenience’s sake (characters do occasionally get to places with little regard to geography or time), the bond between Jax and Roki ensures the pathos in the film is earned, and makes the conclusion of the story poignant and memorable. The great supporting cast (with special credit going to Ryan Begay and Shea Whigham) should all be given major credit in imbuing life to their roles, and making the world of the film feel lived-in and immersive.

Overall, Fancy Dance is a bittersweet family drama about the strong bonds of filial love, enlivened by the compelling lead duo of Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson. It follows a well-worn path but the subtle look to the trials of Indigenous women is felt, leading to a poignant end that will leave many tearing up.

  Here Out West Here Out WestHere Out West


Fancy Dance is playing as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking place between January 19th and 29th, 2023, both in person and online.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.