The Spool / Movies
Intimate Indigenous yarn Fancy Dance hits most of the right steps
Erica Tremblay crafts an honest, lived-in tale of Indigenous struggle and community.
SimilarA Real Young Girl (1976), Antonia's Line (1995), Awakenings (1990), Bend It Like Beckham (2002) Boys Don't Cry (1999) Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), City of God (2002), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Copying Beethoven (2006), Desert Hearts (1985), Lolita (1997), Lords of Dogtown (2005), Lost in Translation (2003) Monsoon Wedding (2001), My Life Without Me (2003), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Night on Earth (1991), Oldboy (2003), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Stand by Me (1986), Strange Days (1995), The Straight Story (1999),
Watch afterBarbie (2023) Dune: Part Two (2024), Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), Oppenheimer (2023) Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), The Equalizer 3 (2023),
MPAA RatingR
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One of Fancy Dance’s most tender moments takes place in a place one wouldn’t normally associate with personal epiphanies. After glancing at a swarm of convenience store bathroom graffiti, teenager Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) sees an opportunity. Taking out a marker, she scribbles “Roki was here” in her native Cayuga language on the wall. It’s one of many instances in Fancy Dance of characters finding little ways to reinforce their presence even when they’re not physically around. Roki clings to trinkets, including a ritzy jacket associated with her missing mother. Performers at a major Powwow event dance to commemorate dead or lost loved ones.

This thematic motif is extra important given that Roki, like nearly all of Fancy Dance’s principal characters, hails from the Seneca–Cayuga Nation Reservation in Oklahoma. The norm in America is to erase Indigenous lives. Their children are stolen. Homes are wiped out. Cultures are suppressed. The figures on screen here find countless ways to refute that erasure. Such rebellion even manifests through something as small as convenience store bathroom graffiti.

Before Roki writes that fateful piece of graffiti, she’s living a quiet life with her aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone). With Roki’s mom missing for weeks now, Jax is the only parent this teenager has. She seems the only one concerned about that vanished lady, given how little effort law enforcement has put into finding her. Unfortunately, Jax’s criminal record from years past leads to the state deeming her unsuitable to be Roki’s guardian. This surrogate mother/daughter duo is now destined to be separated. In the process, this adolescent would also leave behind her reservation’s home and culture.

Fancy Dance (Apple TV+)

In early sequences chronicling the deterioration of Jax’s home life, writer/director Erica Tremblay sharply captures richly lived-in character interactions—the figures her camera witnesses are not just defined by the troubles they experience in the present. Tremblay instead finds ways to emphasize their multi-faceted pasts. Just look at an early scene where Jax has an intimate rendezvous with potential romantic lover Sapphire (Crystle Lightning). The duo’s understated dialogue speaks volumes about how comfortable they are with each other. Tremblay and cinematographer Carolina Costa deftly reinforce this rapport by incorporating multi-colored lights in the backdrop.

This detail accentuates a grounded hominess and warmth in their interactions. Their talks don’t produce lush, radiant colors worthy of a Jacques Demy movie. That wouldn’t fit with the realistic ambiance of Fancy Dance. However, those shimmering gleams suggest the intimacy Jax and Sapphire feel in each other’s company. Equally impressive on this front is the assuredness informing any bonding scenes between Roki and Jax. We all had somebody who was technically a family member but was also as easy to talk to as a friend. The rapport between these two Fancy Dance characters beautifully realizes that type of relationship.

We don’t need flashbacks or didactic dialogue chronicling the years of bonding Roki and Jax have gone through. Tremblay finds amusing and sweet ways to make their long-time connection apparent. Just look at the duo shouting, “I’m not whispering!” while stealing an automobile. Ditto a later ceremony centered on Roki undergoing her first period. Even just their nonchalant walks around the Seneca–Cayuga Nation Reservation speaks volumes about their comfort with each other. The pathos of Fancy Dancy thrives thanks to Tremblay making time for such sweet, nonchalant moments between these characters.

Fancy Dance (Apple TV+)

It doesn’t hurt that such a relationship rests on Lily Gladstone’s enormous talents as a performer. Gladstone has carved out a niche of masterfully conveying a person’s rich life in understated terms. Their performances in Certain Women, The Unknown Country, and Killers of the Flower Moon (among others) all exude years of lived-in experiences that can’t be confined to just one motion picture. That talent is again apparent here; their quietest line deliveries communicate everything from the character’s tense relationship with her father to her relentless drive to find her sister. Within the tiniest facets of Gladstone’s performance exists a deluge of events from yesteryear.   

Fancy Dance’s greatest strengths lie in performances like Gladstone’s and Tremblay’s strong writing. Unfortunately, those qualities also occasionally stumble thanks to the proceeding’s weakest elements. Take an early scene of Roki digging through her mother’s most treasured possessions. This moment is nicely conceived to rely minimally on dialogue. Isabel Deroy-Olson is also strong in a sequence that relies entirely on her acting chops to carry the day. Unfortunately, Tremblay’s directing and Robert Grigsby Wilson’s editing keep haphazardly leaping to different shots and angles. This low-key scene needed a more intimate visual approach rather than relentless jarring cuts. Then, this crucial insight into Roki’s head could’ve landed its maximum emotional power.

Thankfully, that sequence is a weird visual anomaly in Fancy Dance. The rest of the proceedings largely show confidence in letting these fascinating characters and their complicated struggles breathe. Through that intimate gaze, artists like Gladstone and Tremblay excel. Even something as small as bathroom graffiti takes on unexpected levels of depth.

Fancy Dance premieres in theaters June 21st before coming to Apple TV+ June 28th.

Fancy Dance Trailer:

SimilarA Real Young Girl (1976), Antonia's Line (1995), Awakenings (1990), Bend It Like Beckham (2002) Boys Don't Cry (1999) Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), City of God (2002), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Copying Beethoven (2006), Desert Hearts (1985), Lolita (1997), Lords of Dogtown (2005), Lost in Translation (2003) Monsoon Wedding (2001), My Life Without Me (2003), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Night on Earth (1991), Oldboy (2003), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Stand by Me (1986), Strange Days (1995), The Straight Story (1999),
Watch afterBarbie (2023) Dune: Part Two (2024), Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), Oppenheimer (2023) Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), The Equalizer 3 (2023),
MPAA RatingR