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The Independent Critic

Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Ryan Begay, Shea Whigham, Crystle Lightning, Audrey Wasilewski
Erica Tremblay
Erica Tremblay, Miciana Alise
Rated R
92 Mins.
Apple Original Films

 Movie Review: Fancy Dance 
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To call Fancy Dance a melancholy film isn't quite accurate. I wouldn't really call it a somber film or a sad film or even a downbeat film. These descriptions  fall too easily, perhaps a way to distract from the real truth of Fancy Dance. 

Fancy Dance is a realistic film, a film set on Oklahoma's Seneca-Cayuga reservation where hope is as sparse as the landscape and where institutionalized oppression is so deeply ingrained in the cultural tapestry that every moment feels suffocating. A young woman, Tawi, has been long missing having done whatever it took to survive in this world where survival is often a minute-by-minute endeavor. Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) is her tween daughter now being atched over by her aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone). 

I'm not sure it's oppression that radiates throughout Fancy Dance so much as it is a pervasive apathy. The Seneca-Cayuga reservation sits amidst hostile communities and even more hostile institutions that don't understand its ways and don't particularly care to do so. Gladstone, in an awardworthy performance in a not quite awardworthy film, is a smalltime grifter resigned to this as her way of life. Determined to piece together the puzzle pieces of her missing sister with only her brother JJ (Ryan Begay), a cop on the reservation, even remotely supportive, Jax seemingly fights every system around her with the Feds unconcerned about yet another missing Indigenous woman and Child Protective Services determined to take Roki away from her and place her with Jax's estranged, and white, father (Shea Whigham). 

If you're expecting a big story. Think again. Co-writer/director Erica Tremblay has crafted a surprisingly subdued cinematic wonder with precision of dialogue and detail. There's a simple honesty here at work that immerses you in this worldwhere Jax's obvious pain feels like the weight of generations. She's trying desperately to be there for her niece, however, she's not that particularly good at even being there for herself. Roki, in turn, is at the age where innocence is fading and reality is slowly setting in. The annual powwow is a symbol of light of sorts. It's an event Roki has participated in with her mother for years, though with her mother now missing even this feels like a distant possibility. 

Unless. Fancy Dance seems to exist in the quietness of this "unless." 

In some ways, the truths portrayed here are the kinds of truths I wish had been more vividly portrayed in Killers of the Flower Moon. However, that was a different story, obviously, and Gladstone was also the best thing about that film. She's masterful here, another brilliant and intuitive performance demanding that we pay attention to this woman whose life story seems to be both unfolding and destined. Gladstone's chemistry Isabel Deroy-Olson is profound and Deroy-Olson's work here is a bold announcement of her arrival. She so powerfully captures that transitional period before life becomes more steeped in harsh realities and the little moments shared between Gladstone and Deroy-Olson of Cayuga dialogue are quite extraordinary. 

Lensing by Carolina Costa captures a hard-earned beauty amidst cyclical oppression and injustice. The final scene is so beautifully shot, yet it feels like something between a glimmer of light and a momentary illusion. Costa captures with intimacy the relationship between Jax and Roki yet also the distance that is institutionally forced within this world. 

I wasn't quite sure I was impacted by Fancy Dance as the closing credits were scrolling by. Days later, I found myself unable to stop thinking about the film. A perfect starring vehicle for one of Hollywood's best of the up-and-coming actresses, Fancy Dance is a quiet and unforgettable gem. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic