A missing mother is at the centre of moving debut Fancy Dance
Fancy Dance is a film from award winning Native American director Erica Tremblay about one family’s quest to stay together in the face of a trauma that is affecting their whole community. It stars Lily Gladstone (currently a hot contender in the Oscars race for Killers of The Flower Moon) and newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson.
In the run up to a mother daughter Pow Wow (the ‘fancy dance’ of the title) 13-year-old Roki’s (Deroy-Olson) Mother Tawe has gone missing from the Seneca-Cayuga reservation. The federal police seem to have no interest in looking for her, and Roki is left in the care of her aunt Jax (Gladstone) a brash, queer, well-known resident of the reservation who mostly makes her income from petty crime, often involving Roki in her schemes.
When the department of children’s services finds out about Jax’s criminal record they decide she is not an appropriate guardian for Roki and remove her to live at her estranged white grandfather’s house. With the two women desperate to stay together Jax steals Roki away in the dead of night and two embark on a road trip, hoping to solve the disappearance of Roki’s mother and make it to the Pow Wow after all.
It’s a remarkably assured debut from Tremblay who uses the film to highlight the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in the US, and the daily struggles still facing the Native American community. Jax’s desperation to find her sister and frustration that she seems to be the only person who cares is heartbreaking. While this issue was used as a plot in the fairly recent Wind River, Fancy Dance presents a much more authentic reality in which there are no white saviours coming along to save the day.
Though it’s driven by an undercurrent of present day and ancestral trauma, Fancy Dance is still ultimately a film about love. The bond between the two leads is remarkable, Gladstone and Deroy-Olson having the sort of banter and tiffs that only family can have, yet still signalling such clear affection for each other you can’t imagine them possibly being parted.
Tremblay has said this was a film she made for her community before and above anyone else, and that feeling too comes through very strongly. She immerses the audience fully in reservation life and the strong neighbourly bonds of the community living there. Ancient traditions feel very much alive and relevant and a fair chunk of the film in actually in Cayuga, a tribal language that has very few native speakers left. Roki explains to us the importance of the Pow Wow as a tribal event and far more than just the ‘fancy dance’ that her grandparents assume it is.
A scene in which a community search party is out looking for Tawe while chanting her name particularly got under my skin with its ritualistic vibes. Tremblay captures such a potent feeling of connection between these people, something that many of us living modern city lives desperately wish we could feel but are sadly lacking in. When an elder gives Jax a bag of herbs and tells her she must call out her sister’s name if she wishes to find her, you can believe it. Believe that the power of these collective people can achieve something that the individual never could.
It’s a powerhouse central performance from Gladstone, who at turns is capable of determined ferocity but also a quiet vulnerability when she finally does stop running and fighting. Deroy-Olson is a revelation, turning from child to young woman before our eyes as she grapples with the reality of her situation and faces up to the potential fate of her mother.
Powered by its two exceptional leads and its open-hearted love for family, community and tradition, Fancy Dance is a brilliant debut from Erica Tremblay, who establishes herself as an exciting new talent to watch. Its bittersweet ending moved me to tears, leaving frames that will stick in the mind for quite a while.
Fancy Dance is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. A general release date has yet to be announced