In solid, Native-centric drama “Fancy Dance” — a project supported by the Sundance Institute across multiple development labs — writer-director Erica Tremblay gives audiences a glimpse into the Seneca-Cayuga people, focusing on a family devastated by the indifference of the world beyond the reservation. Thirteen-year-old Roki’s mom has gone missing, and society has a funny way of showing its concern, to the extent that law enforcement seems more motivated to find a white fisherman’s stolen truck than to address the latest in an alarming number of disappearances.
That leaves any detective work up to Roki (promising newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson) and her aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone) in a film that’s only nominally more interested in solving the case than the ambivalent authorities. Like recent Cannes Camera d’Or winner “War Pony” (which screens alongside “Fancy Dance” at this year’s SXSW film fest), Tremblay’s hardscrabble debut offers an unvarnished look at life on the rez, where kids grow up fast and local laws barely seem to apply.
One rule that Roki can’t escape is that she’s too young to be left alone. Since Jax has a criminal record, that means packing her up to live with her white grandparents, Frank and Nancy (Shea Whigham and Audrey Wasilewski). Roki’s new guardians aren’t evil, but they are oblivious to the one thing that matters most to the grieving teen: She’s been looking forward to the state powwow, where she’s set to participate in the traditional mother-daughter dance.
When Grandma gives her a pair of ballet slippers and suggests that Roki take lessons in that instead, the girl looks appalled. Still, the older woman’s sympathetic expression suggests that she’s open to learning. In theory, so are we: As a rare glimpse into Native culture, “Fancy Dance” has the tricky task of educating while also entertaining. Practically every scene offers insights into a world that audiences seldom see, perhaps most enlightening when it reveals how these Seneca-Cayuga women feel toward society at large. (Hint: Why respect a system that doesn’t respect you?)
From the opening scene, Tremblay shows Roki serving as an accomplice in the aforementioned truck robbery, and throughout the film, she helps herself to white people’s possessions. A tough, resourceful lesbian, Jax encourages Roki to steal, demonstrating a slick trick at the gas station where she switches hoses, allowing an unsuspecting stranger to fill her tank. They’re relatively harmless hustles, and yet the women’s attitude suggests a kind of karmic retaliation for generations of mistreatment. None of it will bring Roki’s mother back, but stealing a pistol from a woman’s purse levels the playing field slightly.
Though ostensibly a thriller, the movie hardly breaks a sweat, even after Jax kidnaps Roki from her grandparents, hitting the road with cops in pursuit. Mind you, “Fancy Dance” couldn’t be more different from Taylor Sheridan’s testosterone-driven “Wind River.” Here, the only gunshot in the entire movie occurs off-camera, while potentially dangerous scenes — when Jax swaggers into rooms where strangers might snuff her — are curiously lacking in tension.
To her credit, Tremblay insists on presenting Native women in their full complexity, even when doing so makes for paradoxes the movie isn’t prepared to parse. For instance, Tremblay presumes Roki would be better off raised on the reservation, but her unvarnished portrayal of how women get by there (via sex work, drug dealing and crime) is anything but romantic; perhaps going to her grandparents’ could save her life. Meanwhile, if the helmer resents that authorities are so blasé about finding a missing woman, why have those same cops mobilize a full-blown manhunt for the girl?
Before she vanished, Roki’s mom worked as a stripper and sold drugs to a group of bad-news roughnecks, but we get no flashbacks to the kind of mother she was, and dialogue suggests this isn’t the first time she’s disappeared. In her absence, Roki needs a strong mother figure, and Jax is the best option she’s got. In the Cayuga tongue, the word “aunt” means “little mother,” we learn, but for Jax to merit the responsibility that title implies, she’ll need to stay out of jail herself — and the system certainly seems stacked against her.
Even though much of the plot feels preordained, convincing performances keep things interesting and somewhat unpredictable. You never doubt for a second that Gladstone’s Jax can force her way past any obstacle (à la Kali Reis’ “Catch the Fair One” character last year), despite there being a weirdly listless “are we there yet?” quality to this road trip, echoed by the cicadas idly buzzing in the background. Eventually, Roki and Jax will find their way to the powwow, while the case gets handled off-camera. “Missing” may as well be “dead” when the system doesn’t care, whereas sharing traditions and sticking together is a kind of power.