Lily Gladstone Is Remarkable as a Butch Lesbian in ‘Fancy Dance’

Lily Gladstone Is Remarkable as a Butch Lesbian in ‘Fancy Dance’

Stories about the Indigenous experience from Native voices have become more visible in the cinema landscape in recent years — it’s long overdue. Finally, crucial aspects of Native life within modern America are being shown through original contemplative stories. Movies such as The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Lakota Nation vs. the United States, and Wild Indian are vital. These films highlight the poor treatment Indigenous communities continue to face, while also being intimate and character-driven.

Erica Tremblay’s debut drama, Fancy Dance, confronts the ongoing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women — it’s also a thoughtful narrative about an aunt and her niece’s quest to locate her sister in time for a Native Powwow.

Jax (Lily Gladstone) is a butch lesbian living in the Seneca–Cayuga Nation reservation in Oklahoma. Since the disappearance of her sister Tawi, Jax has been the sole guardian of her 13-year-old niece, Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson in a star turning debut). At every opportunity, Jax treks across the land, asking if anyone has seen her sister. It is often to the dismay of her sheriff half-brother JJ, who barely offers any help outside of suggesting to give up. When not searching, Jax is helping Roki prep her dance for her first powwow.

Child protective services comes in and deems Jax unfit to legally take care of Roki — mostly on account of her drinking problem and carelessness to keep Roki safe. The state places Roki, instead, with her white grandparents, Frank (Shea Whigham) and Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), who want her to embrace their white lifestyle. In retaliation, Jax kidnaps Roki and takes her on a trip across the land in hopes of finding Tawi.

With Fancy Dance, writer/director Erica Tremblay brings Indigenous culture to the forefront, centering the lens of the Seneca–Cayuga Nation community. From the opening frame to the very end, Tremblay passionately demonstrates the deep connection they share with the land and their community. Many of those values are rooted within Jax, who tries to hustle just to provide for herself and Roki, even as she keeps finding herself in trouble.

While concentrating on the tribe, Tremblay stresses the painful weight a missing person has on a family and how the negligence of the state from the sheriff to the FBI increases that pain. It’s those aspects of Fancy Dance that resonate deepest. It’s a relief to get authentic voices handling these issues, as opposed to someone like Taylor Sheridan who capitalize on Indigenous struggles.

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