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'Fancy Dance' review: It takes two to tango on the run alongside Lily Gladstone

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone crossing their arms in a shop
Apple Original Films

Spending some quality family time can also mean that you end up doing petty crimes and hijinks with your aunts or uncles. Isn't that just so damn cute? It may also end up being emotionally taxing if we were to take our lessons from Fancy Dance, a scrappy family drama that takes us on a trip to the reservation of the Seneca–Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma.

Performing all the capers teased earlier are Jax (Lily Gladstone) and her 13-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) who has come to be in her aunt's care since her mom Tawi (Hauli Gray) is missing. Not only is Jax taking care of a child and helping her to prepare for a dance at a powwow, but she also has her detective hat on as she's trying to get to the bottom of her sister's alarming disappearance, for which she's (unsurprisingly) receiving no help from law enforcement other than some help from their brother and tribal cop JJ (Ryan Begay). Making the situation more complicated is the development that Roki is sent into the custody of her white grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham) and his new partner Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski) who reside outside the reservation.

Considering that the very basic setup doesn't even get to the twists and turns in the latter half of the movie, it may be important to note that there are two key things that emerge from director-writer Erica Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise's (also portraying the ''Makeup Artist'') storytelling. One is the bond between Jax and Roki, which is already strong when we meet them and evolves as the film goes on, while the other one is the institutional negligence towards disappearances of indigenous women and the violence directed at them. Both of these subjects reverberate on a very sincere frequency throughout because you can recognise the frustration, resilience, love and intelligence on the interesting faces of Gladstone and Deroy-Olson whose chemistry simply sparkles. It's immediately evident that the filmmakers have a lot to say—and most of it they do say well—and the cast translates that urgency in engaging ways.

Another major factor in that success story is that these characters are well-developed and beautifully realised since they all clearly have a past, present and future in some form. It just also happens to be the reason why you can easily identify the cracks in the concrete beneath them. Tremblay directs one-on-one conversations flawlessly but falters somewhat with more intricate set pieces with more moving parts, which results in untidiness, whilst the writing duo's script gets bogged down in the deadly spiral of a busy plot. Adding a perplexing kidnapping storyline, accidental violence, secretive phone calls, first periods and ultimately an oddly designed rift between Jax and Roki, Fancy Dance then becomes distracted in regard to its two driving forces until the writers have to resolve a lot of it with plot conveniences, which is a real bummer.

Ultimately, the movie is endearing, even if a bit rough, partly because it does find its way towards a moving ending that it was always setting up, trusting Gladstone's acting to deliver the complexity and earnestness. Even for those who normally refuse to dance, it does feel like the cast and crew had learned enough of the moves to turn you into a willing dance partner in this narrative of injustice and familial bonds.

Smileys: Characterisation, acting

Frowneys: Screenplay

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