Sundance 2023: Indigenous Drama ‘Fancy Dance’ Explores the Complexities of Family, Care and Community

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.

A still from Fancy Dance by Erica Tremblay, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The quiet honesty of Little Chief, a short film I saw at Sundance three years ago, has stuck with me since it premiered in 2020. Now, its director, Erica Tremblay, and one of its stars, Lily Gladstone, are back at this year’s Sundance with a feature, Fancy Dance, which Tremblay co-wrote with Miciana Alise; the two met during their time together as fellows in one of Sundance’s Indigenous Labs.  

A Native and queer filmmaker, Tremblay speaks in the film’s press notes about her eagerness to make a feature that dealt with real issues facing Indigenous women and families, but also one that focused on the “joy and happiness in Indian Country, which often gets lost in mainstream portrayals of our communities.”

Set in Tremblay’s home nation of Seneca-Cayuga—and filmed almost entirely on Cherokee Land in cooperation with the Cherokee Film Office—Fancy Dance’s characters speaking in a constantly shifting mix of Cayuga and English. While Cayuga is one of many Native languages with few fluent speakers, Tremblay imagines a community where the language lives on, having spent years taking intensive language courses to learn Cayuga herself. For the film, she brought in an expert who helped teach it to the cast and crew, who made all their set calls in Cayuga throughout shooting.

Fancy Dance offers two dynamic central characters who are both grappling in different ways with loss. Thirteen-year-old Roki’s (Isabel Deroy-Olson, making her onscreen debut) mother has disappeared, but the teen is convinced she’ll return, believing there is no way her mom will miss their annual mother-daughter dance at a large upcoming powwow.

Roki’s aunt, Jax (Gladstone), fears the worst about her missing sister, Tawi, but won’t speak her fears out loud. Instead she goes along with Roki’s insistence at her mother’s imminent return. Together, aunt and niece grift, steal and hustle to get by, putting aside money for the powwow entry fees—until child welfare determines to take Roki to live with her white grandparents, insisting that Jax’s past criminal record makes her an unfit caregiver.

Roki’s grandfather Frank (Shea Whigham) is well meaning but clueless, having remarried a white woman after Jax and Tawi’s mother’s death, and refusing to acknowledge the psychological damage that Roki might face being taken from the only community she knows on the reservation. Jax does the one thing she can think of: She sneaks her niece out of Frank’s house with the promise of bringing her to the powwow, and the two embark on a quest to find Tawi that not only brings them into conflict with the law, but also exposes the devastating ripple effects of colonialism’s legacy in Native communities.

Eventually, a series of decisions, discoveries, recriminations and revelations lead to Jax and Roki being separated, sparking a fearful search and a fraught, but loving reunion. Reflecting on obligation, family, parenthood and the responsibilities thrust upon us by love, Fancy Dance asks viewers to reckon with the complex ways joy and grief intertwine and refuses easy answers to any of its necessary questions, in a way that’s as profound as it is memorable.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.