Few actresses have found so much critical acclaim but remain outside the mainstream. Lily Gladstone emerged in Certain Woman, stealing a film from some of the most famous actresses alive. When she did, the critical and indie communities took notice. Yet it’s been more than 7 years since that film’s debut, and she’s yet to be given a role worth her talents. However, Fancy Dance takes advantage of her dynamic performance. Directed by Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance delivers an incredibly important story while allowing its stars to shine bright.
Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olsen) lives a tough life. Her mother has been missing, and her aunt Jaxx (Gladstone) continually finds herself in trouble with the law. After her mother disappears for longer than expected, Tiki’s grandfather (Shea Whigham) looks to take custody. Roki runs away, recruiting her aunt to help find her mother before she’s removed from Reservation life.
Tremblay builds the story around a very difficult subject to tackle. It’s clear that Roki’s caretakers each have their issues, yet each believes they know what is best for her. The character of Jaxx gaslights the teen girl but also shows immense care of her niece. While she lives within the indigenous community, she runs afoul of the law. There’s instability in this relationship. Yet Jaxx also encourages her niece to pursue a deepening connection to her community.
Meanwhile, Riki’s grandfather opens the door to a stable life. This may seem appealing, but living with a white family, even one that means well will likely sever many of Roki’s ties to the community. Tremblay builds Fancy Dance to have empathy for both sides trying to help Roki and ultimately wants us to understand the importance of continuing cultural traditions within the indigenous community.
The performance from Gladstone rocks the film. She brings a brashness that Fancy Dance certainly needs to provide that dichotomy. You want to root for her depiction of Jaxx. On the page, the character pushes too far, but in the film, Gladstone makes her dynamic and full of empathy. She may turn antagonist at times, but it’s also clear that the world has hardened this woman with each subsequent attack. Gladstone keeps us hooked on Jaxx and helps deliver the film in the process.
Delroy-Olsen immediately shows the power of finding unknowns and simply giving them a chance. Her debut feature film performance, Delroy-Olsen goes toe-to-toe with anyone who enters the screen. She brings energy but never feels precocious. Delroy-Olsen makes it possible to see her future success. She can avoid the messy worlds her mother and aunt were forced to interact within. Yet with the help of her family, she becomes a symbol of indigenous strength. Fancy Dance needed Deroy-Olson for the film to reach its full potential, and she nails it.
The one knock against Fancy Dance lies in its fairly predictable story. Much of the narrative feels like stories we’ve seen before, albeit with white protagonists and characters. The indigenous lens adds considerably to the story, but the actual way events unfold is predictable. Fancy Dance may not embody the “feel good” stories that often premiere at Sundance. However, it falls into some of the pitfalls of those gums, despite its unique lens. Fancy Dance has an incredible ending, allowing us to live a moment with these characters as the tension continues to build.
For fans of Lily Gladstone, Fancy Dance has been a long time coming. She finally receives the starring role she long deserved. Her performance drives Fancy Dance and is one of the best performances of the year so far.