“Maybe while you’re here you could learn a new dance,” Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski) says to Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) in a seemingly kind gesture in “Fancy Dance,” handing her a family heirloom of gold ballet slippers as she adjusts to a new home. The gift is well-intended, but inappropriate given the terrible circumstances that Roki has arrived at the home of her grandparents under, seized by the local authorities on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation under the direction of Oklahoma Department of Child Welfare after her mother Tawi has gone missing and her aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone) is considered unfit as a caretaker, in spite of essentially taking turns raising Roki with her sister, due to a criminal record, and although Nancy wants to be closer to Roki, the idea that she is offering some kind of substitute for the traditions of the only world she has ever known when there remains hope that Tawi can still return and join Roki to dance together at the local pow wow in a few weeks is unfathomable.
In Erica Tremblay’s considerate and deeply moving feature debut, Nancy and Roki may be part of the same family, but might as well be worlds apart when they’re connected by Frank (Shea Whigham), who fathered Jax and Tawi before leaving their mother and Indian Country altogether and married Nancy. He could be of help now when a call from someone white is bound to be answered a little faster than from Jax or her brother JJ (Ryan Begay), who is actually part of the reservation police force, but has his hands tied by the federal jurisdiction over the land for missing person cases, making a formal search for Tawi essentially a non-starter. Instead, Jax and Roki conduct searches of their own with the help of the community until they’re separated by the law, moving far more swiftly to take away a child from her reservation roots than to look into a case of a woman ripped away from them.
“Fancy Dance” doesn’t lack for drama, but where it finds it is even more compelling when Jax, upset by Frank’s custodianship, takes Roki with plans to do the investigation the police won’t, only to have an amber alert issued for Roki’s return. Although Tawi’s disappearance is felt for the tragedy that it is, Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise are less interested in the mystery surrounding her than going into fine detail about the unnecessary pain doled out by the systemic failures that have let such cases languish and the families that begin to question each other and fall apart as a result. Gladstone and Deroy-Olsen have a tender rapport as Jax and Roki that makes it all the more upsetting when they start being unable to trust one another, which one can see has already infiltrated nearly every relationship Jax has after years of other disappointments living on the reservation. Still, even when the family dynamics may be strained, the storytelling never is as “Fancy Dance” gracefully manages to show how it isn’t the people involved who are responsible for the vicious cycle they find themselves in, yet resolving wounds that deepen with each passing generation takes a political will that feels elusive and Tremblay gives audiences something solid to hold onto.
“Fancy Dance” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th at 6:45 pm at the Library Center Theater in Park City and January 27th at 7 pm at the Redstone Cinemas in Park City. It will be available to watch online from January 24th through January 29th.