Audrey Wasilewski, Blayne Allen, Crystle Lightning, drama, Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance, film festivals, Isabel Deroy-Olson, LGBTQ, Lily Gladstone, movies, Oklahoma, reviews, Ryan Begay, Shea Whigham, Sundance Film Festival
January 25, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Erica Tremblay
Some language in Cayuga with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Fancy Dance” features a cast of Native American and white characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A woman with a troubled background comes up against obstacles in finding her missing sister, whose 13-year-old daughter could end up in the custody of the sisters’ estranged father.
Culture Audience: “Fancy Dance” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting movies about families coping with a missing loved one, and how issues of race and social class affect Native Americans in the United States.
“Fancy Dance” is a well-acted story of Native American culture and law enforcement’s treatment of cases involving missing Native American women, who are rarely the focus of narrative feature films. The relationships in the movie are depicted authentically. At a certain point in “Fancy Dance,” the movie’s last five minutes are easily predictable, but this last scene is handled with a mixture of sentiment and realism. Viewers who think the movie’s ending is too vague aren’t really paying attention, because there’s a certain inevitability to what will happen to the main characters. It’s just not explicitly shown in the movie.
Directed by Eric Tremblay (who co-wrote the “Fancy Dance” screenplay with Miciana Alise), “Fancy Dance” takes place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma (where the movie was filmed on location), and centers mostly on working-class members of the Seneca Nation tribe of Native Americans. The movie has several examples of how ancient traditions in the Seneca Nation have survived but sometimes clash or are misunderstood by a modern American culture dominated by white people. “Fancy Dance” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
At the beginning of “Fancy Dance,” viewers see Jax Goodiron (played by Lily Gladstone) working in tandem with her 13-year-old niece Roki Goodiron (played by Isabel Deroy-Olson) to steal some items from a middle-aged man who’s fishing by himself in a local creek. Jax, who is in her 30s, distracts the man by pretending to cool off with some water in the creek. She takes her top off to reveal her bra, because she knows that the man will be distracted by looking at her.
While the fisherman is ogling Jax in a voyeuristic manner, Roki sneaks up from behind and rifles through his belongings that are in a duffel bag in a nearby grassy area. Roki steals the man’s wallet, his car keys and some other items. After Jax finishes her contrived “bath,” she and Roki steal the man’s car to go to a grungy convenience store, which is an unofficial pawn shop. The store is operated by a scruffy dealer named Boo (played by Blayne Allen), who also sells illegal drugs out of the shop. After some bargaining, Jax and Roki sell a gold wedding band to Boo for $350.
At this convenience store, Roki sadly glances at a posted flyer for a missing woman named Wadatwai “Tawi” Goodiron, who is Roki’s single mother. (Roki’s father, who is briefly mentioned with contempt in the movie, abandoned the family and is not involved in raising her.) Viewers soon find out that Jax, Tawi and Roki all live together in a modest house on a Seneca Nation reservation.
Jax has a sullen, jaded attitude, but she has a soft spot for Roki, whom she treats as if Roki were her own daughter. Roki is inquisitive and has an upbeat personality. However, Roki is not so innocent, because she’s a willing accomplice in the thefts that Jax instigates, and Roki does some shoplifting on her own.
Tawi disappeared two weeks ago without any clues of where she went. Roki and Tawi are scheduled to appear at an upcoming powwow, where they are the reigning champs of a traditional mother/daughter dance. Jax has been keeping Roki’s hopes up that Tawi, who has never missed this powwow with Roki, will come home soon. But is this expectation realistic or false hope?
Tawi works as a dancer at a strip club called Tail Feathers, so it’s possible that she could have run into some sleazy people through her job and met with foul play. Jax is romantically involved with a dancer at the strip club named Sapphire (played by Crystle Lightning), who is also worried about where Tawi is, but Sapphire doesn’t know what happened to Tawi. Jax and Tawi have an older brother named JJ (played by Ryan Begay), a local police officer who hangs out at the strip club in his spare time.
Later, viewers soon find out that Jax is no stranger to felonious criminal activities. She spent time in prison for drug trafficking, although the movie doesn’t say how long her prison sentence was or how long ago it happened. Based on the crimes that Jax commits in the movie’s opening scene and later in “Fancy Dance,” she’s having a hard time “going straight” as a law-abiding citizen.
The disappearance of Tawi is the catalyst for almost everything that happens in the story. Law enforcement officials don’t take the disappearance very seriously, so Jax decides to investigate on her own. It’s implied that because Tawi is Native American and a stripper, authorities don’t really care about investigating her disappearance.
Tawi is a resident of a Native American reservation on federal land, so her disappearance falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI, which has sent an agent with the last name Morris (played by Jason Alan Smith) to investigate. Agent Morris makes it obvious to the family that this missing person case is a low priority. Jax asks some of the shady characters who might know what happened to Tawi, but Jax also gets a hostile or indifferent reaction.
Things get more complicated when the Goodiron siblings’ estranged father Frank Harris (played by Shea Whigham) shows up unannounced with his wife Nancy (played by Audrey Wasilewski), to check in on how Roki is doing. Frank is also a local police officer, who uses his law-enforcement connections later in the movie for other reasons. This fractured family has a lot of resentment and hard feelings that go back several years.
Frank was married to the mother of JJ, Jax and Tawi. After the mother died, Frank “ran off” with Nancy, according to what Jax says in a bitter argument with Frank. JJ seems to have forgiven Frank, but Jax and Tawi have not been as understanding. In fact, Tawi was no longer on speaking terms with Frank at the time that Tawi disappeared. Frank and Nancy are both white, so there are racial implications to how Frank and Nancy lead separate lives from the Native American side of Frank’s family.
Nancy is verbally pleasant but socially awkward with her stepfamily. In a scene demonstrating the racial tensions and cultural divide, Nancy makes ignorant remarks about the upcoming powwow. She calls the powwow regalia a “costume” and thinks of the powwow as some kind of “theater” event where people dress up like actors, instead of trying to understand that a powwow is a tradition that honors a tribe’s culture. It’s also an event where people are encouraged to be themselves. In other words, it’s not like a Halloween party where people dress up in costumed disguises.
When Nancy hears that Roki and Tawi are supposed to participate in a mother/dance at the powwow, Nancy gives a pair of Nancy’s old ballet slippers as a gift to Tawi to wear at the powwow dance. “Fancy Dance” isn’t subtle at all in showing that Nancy is somewhat dismissive of this Native American tradition and would rather impose the white, Eurocentric cultural ways that Nancy is used to living. Roki politely thanks Nancy for the gift, Roki but says that she has no interest in ballet. This misguided gift also shows Nancy’s ignorance or denial that ballet lessons cost the type of money that Roki and her mother obviously don’t have.
“Fancy Dance” has other examples of how Native Americans are treated differently by people in a culture that enables and encourages white supremacist racism. However, the movie doesn’t let Jax and Roki off the hook for some of the risky and illegal things that they do that cause more trouble for themselves. It’s enough to say that the search for Tawi gets more dangerous and complicated.
Jax’s competence as a temporary guardian for Roki also gets questioned because of Jax’s criminal record. Officials from child protective services get involved. Child custody arrangements could result in Frank and Nancy getting permanent custody of Roki if Tawi remains missing. Jax doesn’t want Frank and Nancy to raise Roki, because the spouses barely know Roki, and Roki will be forced to live away from her Native American culture on the reservation. Jax also doesn’t trust Frank, and she thinks that Frank and Nancy won’t be able to properly teach Roki about Native American culture.
What makes “Fancy Dance” such a compelling story is how the principal cast members are able to embody these characters in ways that look entirely natural—not staged, over-rehearsed or forced. The scenes and conversations flow with fluctuating energy that effectively convey what each character might be thinking or feeling, instead of putting too much emphasis on just the perspective of Jax, the lead character.
Still, Gladstone’s complex performance Jax is the heart and soul of the movie. Jax is caught between the seedy world of her criminal activities and the straight-laced life that she has to live if she wants to prove that she’s fit to be Roki’s legal guardian, in case Tawi remains missing. Jax has a combination of cockiness and self-loathing that sometimes makes Jax her own worst enemy.
However, there’s a seething, underlying anger to what Jax does, because she’s so frequently misjudged because of her race and social class. Her attitude seems to be, “People already think I’m a criminal. I might as well be who they think I am.” Even when Jax isn’t doing anything wrong, she is still treated as “inferior” or “suspicious” by certain people.
Roki is keenly observant of what goes on around her, and Deroy-Olson portrays Roki with a skillful blend of child-like optimism and adult cynicism. Viewers of “Fancy Dance” will feel some emotional investment or concern about how Roki is growing up, and who she might be when she’s an adult, considering her chaotic life so far. Is Roki better off living with Jax or with Frank and Nancy? The movie doesn’t offer easy answers—just like the lives of the main characters and people in real life who exist in the margins of degradation and turmoil, and they have a hard time getting out.