Movies

“Fancy Dance” Review

“Reservation Dogs” scribe leads a masterclass in environmental storytelling

(Courtesy Significant Productions)

If you can’t place how you know the name Erica Tremblay (Seneca-Cayuga Nation), it’s likely because you’ve forgotten she wrote and directed numerous episodes of the much-lauded FX/Hulu show Reservation Dogs. Tremblay also has quite a few film credits under her belt in various roles, but the forthcoming Fancy Dance starring Killers of the Flower Moon’s Lily Gladstone might be her most impactful work yet.

Gladstone (Blackfeet) here plays Jax, a queer auntie living on the Seneca-Cayuga rez in Oklahoma with her young niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson, Tr’ondëk Hwéch’in) who finds herself dealing with the aftermath of her missing sister, Roki’s mother. As the community barrels toward the big annual powwow, Jax must contend with a broken system, ailing connections to her family and her very survival—all while trying to keep her niece’s connections to their culture alive alongside her own.

Gladstone strikes a sublime balance between magnetic and repulsive as the hustler Jax. On one hand, she seems to be corrupting her niece with meditations on thievery and deception; on the other, their environs don’t exactly make for easy living and almost every move Jax makes feels justifiable in that steal-a-loaf-of-bread way.

Tremblay, who co-wrote the script with Miciana Alise (Tlingit) and also directs, is a masterful environmental storyteller. Jax and Roki’s home, for example, is a cluttered mess, but a home; and scenes set in places like Tulsa drug dens, the rez mini-mart/fence or the strip club where Jax’s paramour (a quick but pivotal performance from Crystal Lightning, Enoch Cree) sets a tone of living with little hope—but living nonetheless. Even a brief turn from Boardwalk Empire alum Shea Whigham as Jax’s white father adds a layer of meaning to Jax’s pathos; even a quick scene featuring semi-nomadic oil workers is cause for contemplation.

Jax wants a better life for her niece and doesn’t know how to make it happen, but she speaks Cayuga regularly and passes along ceremonial and cultural knowledge often. Still, the omnipresent undercurrent of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People permeates each and every scene, leaving little room for comfort or a satisfying climax. It hurts, in fact, when we must accept what Jax knows all along: Help isn’t coming, but celebrating small victories, even if they’re just another sunrise, sometimes has to be enough.

Fancy Dance comes to the AppleTV+ streaming service this week, but also select theaters—like Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts.

8

+Gladstone disappears into her role; Tremblay shows rather than tells

-Supporting cast struggles to keep up with Gladstone

Fancy Dance

Directed by Tremblay

With Gladstone, Deroy-Olson, Lightning and Whigham

Center for Contemporary Arts, R, 90 min.

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