Fancy Dance Review

Fancy Dance is now playing in select theaters, and will stream on Apple TV+ beginning June 28.

2023 turned out to be something of a breakout year for Lily Gladstone. Those who showed up for Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 film Certain Women were already aware of Gladstone’s excellence; the rest of the world fortunately caught up when Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon catapulted them into the upper echelon, nabbing a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars along the way. That clout surely spurred Killers studio Apple into acquiring Fancy Dance. In the feature debut from director Erika Tremblay, Gladstone plays Jax, a Seneca-Cuyahoga looking after her niece, Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson) and struggling to find anyone who’ll investigate the disappearance of the girl’s mother, Tawi.

In this mode, Fancy Dance operates almost like a bleaker version of the backwoods noir Winter’s Bone, one where most everyone involved knows what the answer is going to be, and they’re fighting more for closure. Similarly, Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise introduce a ticking clock complication, and that’s where their movie starts to feel less sturdy. It comes in the form of Frank and Nancy (Shea Whigam and Audrey Wasilewski), Jax’s dad and stepmom who get custody of Roki since Jax has a criminal record and Tawi shows no signs of coming back soon.

Fancy Dance Gallery

For a while, it’s actually pretty compelling. Jax is stuck against an uncaring bureaucracy on one end and a system with a history of decimating Indigenous culture and families on the other, and as a result she’s beyond desperate. Not to mention that Roki has a pow-wow she’s been training for, one that she’s hoping her mom will show up to. Unfortunately, Tremblay and Alise send the two of them on a road trip that involves Jax stealing her dad’s truck and Jax “kidnapping” Roki.

The problem is less the trip itself and more the contrivances needed to engineer it. Hints of trouble begin to appear from the start with the arrival of a child protective services worker who seems to come less out of any concern for Roki and more as a means to kickstart the plot. Frank and Nancy also feel somewhat mechanical within the story, with Frank debating whether he should even call the cops following Jax and Roki’s flight. (Whigam and Wasilewski, both fine actors, underplay their obliviousness and villainy to arrive at something more like genuine worry, even as it’s implied Nancy wants Roki more as a replacement for the child she can’t have.) At another point, a gun enters the picture; at Fancy Dance’ lowest point – the two are held up by an ICE agent who treats them as if they’re immigrants and yet is seemingly aware enough of the Indigenous population to recognize when Jax speaks Cayuga. It’s an inexplicable misunderstanding (Jax and Roki have already made the evening news at this point) that seemingly exists only to clear the runway for a punchline in the back of the agent’s car.

Jax and Roki’s interactions with white people are all fairly blunt, and the scene itself could be excused as yet another method to harass the duo. But it all starts to feel like cheap methods of goosing up tension that weren’t even needed in the first place, turning Fancy Dance into a crime saga where there aren’t stakes so much as manipulations to get the characters where the story needs them to be. It’s doubly disappointing because Tremblay displays at least some competence with tension in an early sequence at an oil worker’s camp – not quite original but at least something that works for the movie. She doesn’t quite have the visual eye to give the landscapes the proper beauty they require, give or take a dusk shot or two. Fancy Dance can be pretty, but it feels more conventional than it should.

For all of Fancy Dance’s flaws, it confirms Gladstone’s immense charisma. They’re arresting every time they’re on screen: expertly deploying grim determination and a deep sadness behind the eyes but with a dose of the levity they’ve displayed both online and on press tours. They almost single-handedly elevate the entire movie by themselves, in the fashion of a true movie star. DeRoy-Olson holds her own well enough despite being a little amateurish at times; she acquits herself well in a climactic emotional scene, selling Roki’s feelings throughout. Gladstone and DeRoy-Olson have great chemistry that culminates in a fantastic final scene, one that made me wish the on-the-run elements of Fancy Dance had been jettisoned completely.

This post was originally published on IGN

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