4 1/2 Stars Movies

Fancy Dance (2023)

A story that is culturally unique, yet also universal.

(Note: The movie Fancy Dance is one of two virtual tickets I managed to buy for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.)

It is rather refreshing in a way when a film title refers to more than one thing.

Sure, Fancy Dance could refer to the upcoming Oklahoma State powwow in the film’s plot, but that would be far too simple. It is indeed what is on the mind of the 13 year old Native American Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), but one could also see how it is the way we as human beings try to maintain family as well as dignity. 

 While under the care of her Aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone) since the disappearance of her mother weeks prior, this powwow is the one brightspot in Roki’s life to look forward to (and, according to Jax, reconvene with her mother at the event).

Jax has more to her than what she is telling her niece, as she is, bluntly put, a hustler. She soon finds out the authorities are more concerned about her niece’s living situation (Jax has had some blots with her past actions, and her parenting style is not the most wholesome) than finding her sister Tawi. Even her brother JJ (Ryan Begay), who heads up the local police, is hesitant on find her. Jax would rather take matters into her own hands than have Roki under the care of her grand parents. 

This is the debut feature film for director Erica Tremblay (who also wrote the screenplay). Like many first time directors/writers (and story tellers in general), she talks about what she knows and what is personal to her (she herself is a member of the indigenous community).

I admit to not knowing the most about the current state of indigenous people and their living situations (I am always willing to learn), Even so, it was rather impressive to still sense the authenticity that Tremblay was portraying on screen. Most notable is how this is a story that is culturally unique, yet also universal.

No surprise, the performances therefore are bona fide, even to the point that one may mistake them for real people. Young Isabel Deroy-Olson is new to me, though Lily Gladstone has been around for a little bit (she was in the sadly little viewed First Cow, and will be soon seen again in the long awaited Scoresese flick Killers of the Flower Moon). These two are the backbone of the film, and their chemistry is iron sharpening. 

Fancy Dance is another one of those slice of life movies where there is no actual villain. True, you do want the authorities to ease up on the two main characters, but the grandparents are not mean spirited. One easily over looked scene is when Roki’s (step) grandmother is trying her best to connect with the young teen, and ends by saying “Maybe tomorrow, we can go shopping for what you like.” The family has love even through some miscommunication.

Parents, the movie does not yet have a rating, but I would venture the MPAA would give this an R rating due to a few F bombs. There is also some scenes in a strip club (no nudity) that Jax visits her girlfriend at.

A big kudos should be given to Tremblay for how she ends the movie. I won’t spoil it, but it ends the way the characters would want it to end, in a non conventional way. It reminded me a bit of how Chaplin ended his masterpiece City Lights

I can’t say where Fancy Dance will land for people to view in the months ahead (actor Forest Whitaker acted as an Executive Producer, so there could be hope still that it sees the light of day), but for what it is worth, it sits clearly as one of the better movies I have seen in the early year.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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