Indigenous Women Brave a Hostile Environment in Erica Tremblay’s Sundance Feature ‘Fancy Dance’

The Sundance film Fancy Dance will be difficult to pin down in the way some of the best movies to ever grace the festival circuit are meant to be. It’s partly a road trip movie, which never takes its eyes off the central cast; it’s also a family movie where a key member of the family never appears, and the two main characters spend much of it on the run, but still communicating with those they’re running from.

The biggest precedent Fancy Dance sets is also a kind of phenomenon that is taking far too long to catch on. It’s set in amongst a population that can be politely called traditionally marginalized, in this case Oklahoma’s Indigenous community, and it’s told by someone who is from that community – director and co-writer Erica Tremblay.

A common stumbling block is such stories is attempting to avoid the unavoidable fact that such characters will always have the burden of representing far more than themselves, but Tremblay and her co-writer Miciana Alise (also Indigenous and who also has an IMDb credit on the movie as a makeup artist) simply do not have time for that nonsense. In that sense, they have much in common with the movie’s hardened yet compassionate center Jax (Lily Gladstone).

Indigenous Story

Jax is a living embodiment of a whole other kind of American phenomenon, which had been noted for years and the pandemic made crystal clear; that other countries have social safety nets, while the United States has women. And Jax is a force unto herself, the kind of woman you believe could somehow find a way to hold her family together after her sister’s disappearance has a domino effect which could culminate in her losing custody of her 13-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) to Jax’s estranged and very white father, Frank (Shea Whigham) and his new wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski).

It makes for a grim set of circumstances, as Jax must grapple with far more obstacles than the beautifully blonde Ree in Winter’s Bone. Her sister’s disappearance on their reservation means that the FBI has jurisdiction in the case, and they’re slow to even attempt any kind of progress, as numerous other still missing Indigenous women are grim proof of.

Jax is unable to legally step in as guardian due to her record, and her lack of access, both to high places and sufficient funds, puts her at a significant disadvantage at navigating the courts and fighting for her niece. The fact that she’s kind of seeing a stripper at her sister’s former workplace would also likely not earn her any bonus points for stability.

Life, Not A Crime

Anyone expecting a deep dive into the world of drugs and prostitution will be disappointed, but after Jax takes tentative, short-lived steps into her former stomping grounds she comes to much of the same conclusions as Ree did in terms of where her missing relative has ultimately ended up.

Jax isn’t completely blameless in the way daily life in straitened circumstances rarely allows, and she teaches and encourages her niece to engage in some acts of petty thievery for survival purposes. But she’s also desperate for Roki to hold onto some measure of hope that her mother could show up at the powwow where they’ve always danced together.

The only slightly false note in Tremblay’s complex portrait on Indigenous life and ritual stubbornly persisting in an environment and system that’s outright hostile when it’s not failing to offer any protection is that of a white man actually showing remorse for his actions

It’s hard to fault Fancy Dance for offering a glimmer of a brighter tomorrow in the face of an often relentlessly grim present, especially when it would likely be far too much for the wider audience the film must inevitably appeal to for any kind of success.

Rating: 9.5/10 SPECS

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.

She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.