The narrative feature debut of Erica Tremblay traverses much of the same ground as other films set on and around reservations, highlighting poverty, a spirit to hustle, human trafficking, and the quagmire of political relations between sovereign nations. The domain of recent films like the dark thriller Catch the Fair One as well as Tracey Deer’s Beans and Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian, Fancy Dance also deserves recognition as a landmark of indigenous representation. Co-written by Tremblay and Miciana Alise, their thriller is grounded in the rhythms of everyday life, a little lighter than Catch the Fair One but bearing an equally devastating conclusion.

Set on the Seneca-Cayuga Nation adjacent to the northeast corner of Oklahoma, Fancy Dance stars Lily Gladstone as Jax, a strong-willed hustler who, in the first scene, takes off with a fisherman’s truck to sell it for scrap. She’s taking care of her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) while searching for her missing sister Tawi, who we later learn worked at a strip club and may have provided other goods and services to the well-paid white men that work in nearby oil fields.

Jax’s half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay), head of the local tribal police, also finds himself in the middle of multiple jurisdictions dragging their feet until the FBI has no choice but to start digging into the case. Gladstone’s Jax is the most stable caregiver for Roki. Despite doing what she needs to survive, as a justice-impacted individual she’s also at a crossroads with limited options. A call to child-protective services finds Roki placed with her grandparents outside the reservation, disconnected from tribal life and traditions.

Operating in the mode of a road trip as much as a thriller, Jax breaks Roki free and they hit the road to a PowWow in Kansas City, leading to encounters with the FBI and one incompetent member of homeland security who appears to stop them outside of a store for being, above all else, racially ambiguous.

Fancy Dance shines strongest in the moments between Deroy-Olson’s Roki and Gladstone’s Jax, the latter taking on a protector role with very few prospects other than living on the margins in a small community where everyone knows each other’s business. The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women is sadly an open secret that deserves more light. Last summer, while traveling in rural New York, I drove through the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Tribe of Indians and found large roadside banners bearing images of missing women, as well as the names of suspected traffickers who were not allowed on this sovereign land.

Fancy Dance is a rich character study that explores the contemporary impact of permanently marginalizing a community with limited options. Other communities and economies emerge and potentially entrap someone like Roki who, as a teen, tries reconciling a sense of foundation while having little to grab onto. Above all, this is a well-written drama that feels like an authentic, at times painful exploration of a community from a filmmaker that knows this place all too well.

Fancy Dance premiered at Sundance 2023.

Grade: B

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