Lily Gladstone Gives A Tremendous Performance In Indigenous Drama [Sundance]

Jan 30, 2023

With her breakout turn as a soulful queer rancher in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” Lily Gladstone proved herself to be one of the most unique and affecting performers of the last decade. Although she has worked steadily since it’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long for another role that really allows her tremendous talent to shine. 
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Co-written by director Erica Tremblay (“Reservation Dogs”), whose short “Little Chief” also starred Gladstone, and Miciana Alise, the family drama “Fancy Dance” explores the systematic mishandling by the police and the FBI of missing and murdered indigenous women. Gladstone (“Certain Women”) stars as Jax, a queer woman determined to find her missing sister Tawi while caring for her 13-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson, “Three Pines”) in a world that doesn’t seem to care about the well-being of any of them.
We first meet Jax and Roki, looking for gold with a metal detector out in the gorgeous verdant woods of the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Carolina Costa (“Hala”), during the day, the Reservation always seems to be awash in golden light. The two speak Cayuga when together and English when they have to. Gladstone’s Jax is a protector, using her firm body and stern face to keep order for those she loves. 
Jax is a hustler who mostly makes a living off what she can take, from the land and careless people around her, teaching Roki the tricks of the trade along the way. Gladstone and Deroy-Olson have an easy chemistry together, full of inside jokes and closeness that only comes after a lifetime spent together. Deroy-Olson’s soulful, curious eyes imbue the character with an inherent innocence, even as she attempts to project the same roughness as her aunt.  
Although Roki’s mom Tawi has been missing for a few weeks, Jax has kept the seriousness of her disappearance from her niece, promising Roki she will return in time for the upcoming powwow in Tulsa. As Roki focuses a little too hard on sewing a new shawl for her mother, it’s clear she’s more aware of what’s going on than she’s letting on. Later, while Jax lay asleep, Roki rummages through her mother’s belongings, trying on her shoes and watching old videos of them dancing together. There is hope to the act but also a deep sadness.
Aside from homemade missing posters, she’s plastered around town and the occasional search party led by her fellow locals, Jax is unable to get her sister declared a missing person. She’s caught in a bureaucratic feedback loop. The local police, including her half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay, “Roswell, New Mexico”), must defer to the FBI, who have yet to form a task force or take looking for Tawi seriously. 
However, that doesn’t stop the CPS from removing Roki from her care due to a past criminal record for drug dealing. Forced to stay with her white grandfather Frank (an always solid Shea Whigham, “Boardwalk Empire”) and his new wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski) off the Reservation, Roki herself is now caught in a similar bureaucratic nightmare, subsumed by a system that follows the letter of the law without considering what’s best for her culturally.
Frank and Nancy don’t speak Cayuga, and Nancy, in particular, only seems to speak in microaggressions. At one point calling the regalia, Roki is sewing for the powwow a “costume” while also comparing the traditional dances to her time in the high school theater. Despite convincing themselves they’re doing the right thing by Roki as her family members, all they manage to do is make her feel othered.
As all this occurs, Jax continues trying to trace her sister’s whereabouts in the days before she disappeared. This takes her to a strip club called Tailfeathers, where Tawi once worked. There she meets with the alluring Sapphire (a wonderful Crystle Lightning, “Yellowstone”), whose companionship and information are equally invaluable. Jax also visits a van encampment where oil workers live, party, and buy drugs from local dealers. Tremblay seamlessly blends these noir elements with the family drama plot by always keeping the action tense once the film shifts fully into Jax’s mission to find her sister. 
Eventually, her investigation escalates after she takes Roki with her on a trip to track down a lead, causing an Amber alert to be issued. Here we see just how broken the system is as the FBI are more organized in their efforts to locate Roki when she’s illegally in Jax’s custody than they are when it comes to actually looking for her mother, who’s been missing for weeks. 
Throughout Jax and Roki’s adventures, the Cayuga culture is always present, just as Tremblay and Alise’s script finds every chance it can to critique the ongoing colonialism that seeks to stamp it out. While the third act makes a few wonky choices, and the ending comes together a little too neatly, there’s no denying its impact. 
Dancing at the powwow, Roki and Jax come together to honor their missing loved one and find closure with their community. As both women freely express their grief and love through this traditional dance, one last bittersweet time, Tremblay honors the resilience of indigenous women who keep their culture alive, passing it down from mother to daughter, sister to sister, despite everything that keeps working against them. [B]
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