Fancy Dance (2024) Movie Review – A moving Indigenous family drama

A moving Indigenous family drama

In Erica Tremblay’s ancestral language, Cayuga, the word for “mother” is “kno:ha.” The word for “aunt” draws upon it: “kno:ha:ah,” meaning “little mother” or “other mother.”

Her feature film debut, Fancy Dance, explores the nuances of the Cayuga word through a relationship between an aunt and her niece. After her sister Tawi disappears from their Seneca-Cayuga reservation, Jax (Lily Gladstone) cares for Tawi’s daughter Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson). But frustrations mount for Jax when the feds neglect the missing persons case and child protective services try to take Roki away from her.

Tremblay’s experience writing and directing for Sterlin Harjo’s Reservation Dogs certainly shows in Fancy Dance, which she co-wrote with Miciana Alise. Both Indigenous-led projects share the tender connections within reservation and family life–not to mention a subtle but charged performance from Lily Gladstone.

Tremblay’s focus is mainly on Gladstone and DeRoy-Olson and the aunt-niece dynamic that plays out between them–but she and Alise mine deeper in their script for commentary on the cultural backdrop to their relationship.

Weaved throughout the film (especially through the characters of Jax’s White father and his wife) is a critique of the colonialism that seeks to replace Cayuga culture. Disrespect for Native culture is also seen from the federal officers assigned to Tawi’s case who, rather than looking for Tawi, prefer to allocate their resources to punishing the Native people who “step out of line.”

Amidst this backdrop, the relationship between Jax and Roki becomes more than a touching familial bond–it’s a bond that grows in defiance of the systems within Fancy Dance that disregard Indigenous people.

While some narrative strands don’t tie together perfectly and the drama is marred by a few too-convenient plot points–the emotional beats are there, and they hold a huge payoff. In the end, there’s no strong mystery surrounding Tawi’s disappearance; in fact, making a mystery/crime drama doesn’t ever seem like Tremblay’s intent. But the director obviously knew the story she wanted to tell, as she beautifully frames Fancy Dance with moments between Jax and Roki and ends the film at just the right place to give power to the powerless.

Read More: Fancy Dance Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 8/10

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