In the Cayuga language, the word for “aunt” translates to “little mother” or “second mother,” a concept that gave birth to the film Fancy Dance. Written and directed by Erica Tremblay (Reservation Dogs), the film was supported by the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab and among its executive producers is Forrest Whitaker. Fancy Dance continues a recent trend of shining a spotlight on prejudice when it comes to investigating the disappearance of Indigenous women, with shows like ABC’s Alaska Daily narrowing in on the same concept. But here, it’s not a white woman who tries to correct an injustice, but the sister and daughter of a missing woman taking matters into their own hands. An aunt and niece discover the significance of the Cayuga translation for a mother’s sister in this beautiful drama.
13-year-old Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) can’t wait for the mother-daughter dance at the upcoming powwow, spending her free time sewing costumes that she and her mother will wear. But with her mother having recently vanished without a trace, Roki’s aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone) finds herself in the difficult role of guardian. Barely scraping by financially and with a criminal record, Jax is outraged at the lack of effort to find her sister. As child protective services tries to intervene to place Roki with a grandfather she barely knows (Shea Whigham), Jax and Roki hit the road in a quest to find out what really happened to Roki’s mother.
Like Reservation Dogs, Fancy Dance continues to showcase the disparity of life on a reservation, in this case, the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma. Jax’s drug-dealing past comes back to haunt her. As she does what she needs to do to get by, she has a moment of awakening when she realizes that her actions are imparting Rok9’s future. Roki’s mother was an exotic dancer, and with few other avenues of opportunity, there’s a scene that indicates that she may be stepping into those clear heels someday. Jax also has to deal with the lack of power of Tribal Law Enforcement, a theme that is amplified through a scene where her white father who lives off the reservation calls the police on her.
Fancy Dance is a powerful drama and one that navigates the emotional arc of the story with expertise. Exposition is often delivered through more lighthearted moments of levity, with even a few comedic sequences along the way. The film is primarily in English, but the characters occasionally slip into Cayuga (subtitles are provided), which helps add to the authenticity that is abundant in every aspect of the film. Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson lead the cast with performances that are strong across the board.
Where Fancy Dance falters is with its ending, which feels abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It makes you think and leads to conversations about Roki and Jax’s future might look like. And the sad answer is that it’s probably the happiest ending the story could be given, with the realistic outcomes being similarly unsatisfying. Still, at 90 minutes in length, I wonder if another 10 minutes couldn’t have wrapped the story up a little tighter.
I give Fancy Dance 4 out of 5 stars.
Fancy Dance is an independent film currently seeking a distributor at the Sundance Film Festival. With the connections to FX’s Reservation Dogs, Hulu seems like the most fitting home for it, but time will tell.