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Fancy Dance (2024) Review

Erica Tremblay’s feature directorial debut is one of those incredible movies that manages to walk the line of several genres, switching from crime thriller to family drama to coming of age within a matter of minutes; and I think that’s the perfect approach for a topic as heavy as this. Thirteen-year-old Roki’s mom has been missing for weeks, and no one beyond the community on their reservation seems to care or notice. Her aunt, Jax, tries to keep their routines intact, but life keeps getting in the way and things quickly spiral. Even from watching the trailer, it’s easy to approach this film as a mystery or a road movie, but I think it transcends genre. Just like life itself can’t be boxed into neat categories, neither can this movie. Despite its grounding in the real-life tragedy of missing indigenous women, Fancy Dance doesn’t limit the world of its characters to catastrophe alone. It doesn’t shy away from the despair, but also doesn’t ignore all the joy, faith and, eventually, hope these people feel for their future. It’s an urgently humanizing look at loss, family, and community.

            A big part of this nuance comes from the writing. The dialogue is razor-sharp, sneaking in the exposition instead of spoon-feeding viewers via ham-fisted monologues, which speaks to how fleshed out the characters are. Everyone has a particular voice, and the language is very grounded in a specific place and community. There are even references to people we never see and events that never unfold onscreen, creating a sense that this world expands beyond the borders of the plot. It takes real boldness to transcend the trappings of narrative, and the ending of this film (one of my favorite endings in years), does that with aplomb.

            The strength of the writing is further supported by Carolina Costa’s fantastic cinematography. Tremblay’s background as a documentary filmmaker is definitely on display in the best of ways regarding how this film is shot, using mostly practical lighting and having a very mobile camera; yet, despite those formal restrictions, Costa was able to get some fairly expressive shots that do a lot to build mood and tone. Certain scenes are made even more potent by Samantha Crain’s music, which never overwhelms the scene but does just enough to emphasize its emotional resonance. Of course, none of these things would be of any consequence if the actors fell flat. Luckily, Tremblay and Co. had no such issues.

            Lily Gladstone continues to absolutely dominate, giving a performance that’s as embodied as it is committed. Her portrayal of Jax is full of small details that do so much, from waves of the hand to the cadence of her voice. She might have been snubbed for Best Actress last year, but I hope she gets even more recognition for this role, which she’s called the most important of her career. Despite it being a much quieter, smaller film, I do find it interesting how Fancy Dance serves as a kind of companion piece to her work in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), showing how issues of missing and murdered indigenous women continue to plague present day America. She served as a great co-star to Isabel DeRoy-Olson, who has one of the best feature-length debuts I’ve ever seen. She gives Roki so much depth, showing just how attentive children and teenagers are to the world around them, and expertly displaying how much it hurts when our childlike naiveté inevitably crumbles. These two carried the film with ease, but were also supported by a great supporting cast who did so much to build out the inner lives of both the characters and the people who inhabit their world. Crystyle Lightning, Ryan Begay, Audrey Wasilewski and Shea Whigham all do such wonderful jobs at making their characters feel lived-in and organic. It’s all these things coming together that make this my new movie of the year.

            It can’t be overstated how bold of a choice it was by Gladstone to make this film after doing something as huge as an Oscar-nominated Scorsese epic; but anyone who’s seen The Unknown Country (2022) or Certain Women (2016) can see how it fits so well with her oeuvre. I hope to see her in more indie gems, especially ones that are as good as this. I think what moved me to tears about the ending was the fact that it manages to strike a balance between tragedy and warmth. Life is full of horrible losses, and many things are uncertain but, to paraphrase Alan Watts, we’re here to dance while the music is being played. Fancy Dance is in select theaters today, and will be streaming on Apple TV+ next week (06/28), and I really hope you watch it. Along with being one of the more important films released this year, it’s an achingly gorgeous love letter to a community that, despite everything, is still here making music.

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