Lily Gladstone Shines in Native American Indie ‘Fancy Dance’ a Tale of Circumstance and Perseverance

Returning after her standout role in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Lily Gladstone offers yet another performance worthy of accolades in Erica Tremblay’s feature directorial debut, “Fancy Dance.” While her role in the Martin Scorsese epic placed her in a position of command, “Fancy Dance” casts her as a victim of circumstance who battles against her dire situation with unyielding resolve.

From the very beginning, “Fancy Dance” immerses us in the whirlwind of its narrative. After the mysterious disappearance of her sister, Jax (played by Gladstone) assumes the responsibility of caring for her niece, Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson), on the Seneca–Cayuga Nation Reservation. Complications arise when the custody of Roki is jeopardized by Jax’s father, Frank (Shea Whigham). Facing the threat of separation, the duo flees, embarking on a journey filled with tension and uncertainty. Alongside this, Jax is preoccupied with the search for her missing sister, driven by a promise she made to Roki that she would reunite her with her mother at an upcoming powwow—a significant gathering for Native American and First Nations communities.

In just 90 minutes, “Fancy Dance” meticulously unravels complex themes and presents some of the most nuanced characters seen in recent cinema. Jax’s character is particularly textured; she has a past tainted by drug peddling and petty thefts and maintains a strained relationship with her white father, who married another white woman following the death of Jax’s mother. Roki serves as an extension of her aunt, her initial innocence gradually eroding as the movie progresses and the harsh realities of their situation become evident.

Against the backdrop of their perilous journey, the film also portrays the lackluster efforts to find Jax’s missing sister, highlighting the systemic neglect faced by Indigenous communities. Despite thematic parallels to other thrillers such as Kate Winslet’s “Mare of Easttown,” “Fancy Dance” avoids the trappings of a conventional crime drama. Instead, it focuses on the harrowing human rights crisis encapsulated by the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).

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. This form of violence against Indigenous women has been overlooked for so long that it has become alarmingly normalized, failing to invoke the urgent response it desperately needs.

Tremblay utilizes the narrative to critique practices such as racial profiling and the broader injustices Indigenous women endure in their own land. One poignant scene involves Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), the wife of Roki’s grandfather, giving Roki a pair of ballet shoes, ignorant of her true desire to dance at the powwow—a representation of the cultural disconnect often faced by Indigenous communities.

The strength of “Fancy Dance” lies in its unapologetic portrayal of its female characters and the extreme lengths they go to for survival and family without resorting to sentimentalism or exploitation. The writing and the exceptional performances allow the audience to overlook minor predictabilities in the plot. Tremblay’s direction combined with Gladstone’s stirring portrayal of Jax brings forth a raw and palpable emotional depth that underscores the film’s examination of familial bonds and communal solidarity.

Gladstone’s captivating performance is undeniably deserving of an Oscar. Her portrayal of Jax transcends mere victimhood, presenting a multifaceted character who balances resilience and vulnerability in the face of relentless hardship. Isabel DeRoy-Olson complements Gladstone beautifully, capturing Roki’s loss of innocence and evolving strength with a touching authenticity.

Currently streaming on Apple TV+, “Fancy Dance” is not just a film—it’s a significant commentary on the resilience and struggles of Indigenous women, making it a critical piece of cinema that resonates on both an emotional and a social level. The film not only tells a story of survival and determination but also serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing issues faced by Native American communities and the urgent attention they require.

“Fancy Dance” is a must-watch for anyone seeking a powerful narrative combined with poignant performances, especially Gladstone’s, which incredibly elevates the film’s coming-of-age and social commentary elements. Through its strong character portrayals and timely themes, “Fancy Dance” stands out as a vital indie film that contributes profoundly to the landscape of world cinema.

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