Lily Gladstone Is Superb as Hustler With Heart of Gold

Jan 25, 2023

Home Movie Reviews ‘Fancy Dance’ Review: Lily Gladstone Is Magnificent as a Hustler With a Heart of Gold | Sundance 2023

This road trip drama about an Indigenous family in crisis is sharply written, beautifully directed, and well-acted by all involved.

Image via Sundance

If there is one name of one performer that any lover of cinema is going to want to know, it is that of Lily Gladstone. Sure, this may be a no-brainer for those rightly looking forward to her role in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon. However, it is worth getting to know all of Gladstone’s prior performances as she is and will never be contained to just one work. Each film, no matter what part she played in it, has seen her completely disappear into every character she takes on such as when she acted in 2016’s outstanding Certain Women in collaboration with the great filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. This now continues with another outstanding director, Erica Tremblay, whose name you will also want to know as she makes her narrative feature debut with Fancy Dance.

Following Gladstone’s Jax as she tries to be there for her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) after her mother has suddenly disappeared, Fancy Dance takes a familiar story and makes it into a deeply emotional experience that is bursting with life. In every single small yet pointedly significant detail we get to observe, Tremblay builds a rich world of complicated characters that continues to grow until arriving at a conclusion that is so fitting and unexpected at the same time that it lays you completely flat.

This begins from the opening moments where we first see Jax and Roki down by the river near the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma where they live. There is no dialogue as each of them goes about their various activities as the gentle sounds of nature echo all around them. It is subtle and sublime at the same time as it already begins laying the foundation of a relationship that feels infinitely lived in. When they then pack up to head back, they catch sight of a man fishing by the water. They launch into action, making a great opening scene even better as we begin to understand their routine as they pull off the first of many small-scale hustles that see Jax distract their mark while Roki lifts his keys and wallet from his tackle box. It goes off without a hitch as they steal his nearby truck to sell for much-needed cash.

It is quietly thrilling and without pretense as we then see how these schemes are done in order to survive. In a country that is already hostile to Indigenous women, Jax also faces the challenge of having a record that provides even more of an excuse to target her. Still, she is doing everything she can to do right by Roki. At the forefront of this is a desire to raise enough money to take her to the upcoming yearly powwow where the young girl would always compete with her mother in a dance and where she hopes she will soon show up. This is subsequently disrupted when the state determines that Jax is not fit to raise Roki. The first of many demonstrations of the casual cruelty of bureaucracy, it is decided she will be sent to live with her grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham) despite how he has been absent from her life.

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After initially going along with this, Jax makes the decision that she will sneak Roki out late one night to both take her to the powwow and try to find her mother along the way. This is driven by her growing realization that not only will the government continue to do nothing to help them in their search, they are more interested in taking all that she has left instead. Of course, this also means that the state suddenly discovers a lot of resources to go after Jax and Roki once they leave. The film then becomes one that is a dynamic character study that is grounded in the ongoing injustices that play out in everyday life. This is felt in the weight that Jax carries entirely alone where she must scrap for just enough money to get by in a world where almost everything is stacked against her. Gladstone expresses this in every single facet of her understated yet no less riveting performance. We see how Jax has become broken down by the world and built herself back up into a hardened person out of necessity.

This is all brought out in how Gladstone can say more with just her screen presence than other actors would do with pages and pages of dialogue. With even a steely stare or minute change in expression when she encounters yet another obstacle, Gladstone gives Jax so many dimensions that she feels like a real person you have come to know. It is a performance that contains multitudes in every single moment that the film is worth seeing for alone. The chemistry she then has with Deroy-Olson—who previously went underutilized in the recent series Three Pines though shines bright here in her feature debut—provides a balance to this. The jokes and joy the two characters share feel so natural. You believe them completely, making it as if we are just observing people going about their lives. When Gladstone offers a glimpse of who Jax is beneath the armor she has built up for herself, every outburst of laughter or fleeting smile draws you deeper in. At the same time, in scenes where Roki finds herself alone such as when she looks back through tapes of herself and her mother from a previous powwow, Deroy-Olson hits every emotional note perfectly. It is one of those debut film performances that is so self-assured that it feels as though she has been acting for years.

When we step away from these two characters to check in on those like Frank, the film can feel like it is falling into a bit of a familiar narrative path that is a little less vibrant. These scenes, while frequently a necessity to drive the plot forward by establishing how the police are closing in around Jax and Roki, remain the least interesting parts of the film. Every moment we get with the traveling duo, from when they sneak into a house or have breakfast together, is overflowing with an emotional resonance that nothing else can hold a candle to. One almost wishes that you could have just been with Jax and Roki with some of the more mechanical parts of the plot being a little less frequent in their interjections. With that being said, many of the scenes with Frank do establish a more critical undercurrent about how even supposedly well-meaning people can be agents of an oppressive state. No matter how much they pat themselves on the back for doing what they have told themselves is the right thing, the outcome can still be disastrous for those not considered in their calculus. It sees Whigham continuing to be one of our great character actors as he gives Frank small nuances that help to establish how he becomes a force of pain for his daughter and granddaughter.

As the journey that the two go on gets closer to its conclusion, this pain that Jax has tried to protect Roki from becomes harder and harder to hold at bay. The growing desperation seen in her sharp yet kind eyes speaks volumes even when Gladstone says little at all. Without going into any details, this culminates in a final scene that takes all that we have come to know of both these characters and makes them into something magnificent yet melancholic. There is a part of it that almost resembles one particularly stunning scene from last year’s outstanding Aftersun in how it captures something unspoken yet no less emotionally devastating through dance. Of course, such a comparison only captures a small sliver of the way Tremblay, Gladstone, and Deroy-Olson all come together in complete synchronicity to make something all their own. We are left with a shattering sequence of bittersweet joy crossed with sadness that serves as a testament to the power cinema has to linger forever in our memories.

Rating: A-

Fancy Dance debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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