Touching Tale Sheds Light On Missing N
The characters of Jax (Gladstone) and her cousin Roki (Deroy-Olson), who go about their daily lives on the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation, are introduced to viewers in Fancy Dance. Since it’s clear that Jax is by all accounts a devoted and caring aunt, this pattern of stealing strangers’ car keys only serves to highlight the difficult situations that society has forced upon them. When it is discovered that Roki’s mother Tawi has been missing for weeks without any steps being taken by the authorities to locate her, the stress surrounding their survival-related adventures only increases. Jax must deal with the very real potential that Tawi has been taken from them permanently and that she will lose Roki to child protective services, even though Roki desperately hopes that her mother will show up at the annual powwow to dance with her.
Fancy dance knows all too well that life is worthless without hope, but that hope without action is just as harmful. After being granted custody of his estranged granddaughter with his new wife, Jax’s father Frank (played with understated authority by Shea Whigham) enters the scene. His awkward attempts to connect with Roki highlight how useless empty words are when the speaker has taken no action to help. The broken relationship between Jax and Frank is also acknowledged, making the movie both a drama about a family and a critique of contemporary society.
Tawi could be considered Fancy Dance’s major flaw because she functions more as a metaphor or cipher than an actual person, but her absence is essential to the story. The history of abuse against indigenous women and the unsolved disappearances of indigenous women continues to be a silent epidemic. She’s rarely the center of attention (and rarely even noticed, for that matter), which sometimes keeps her from feeling like anything more than an extension of the other characters, but also highlights how real women are increasingly becoming a statistic. Plus, it makes way for more humorous exchanges between Roki and Jax or even between Jax and her sporadic friend Sapphire (Crystle Lightning).
Although there is less dancing than the title would suggest, Fancy dance depicts the upcoming powwow as a representation of unwavering hope. Roki is eagerly anticipating the momentous occasion because it will give her the chance to visit her mother one more time and because it will allow viewers to see the indigenous community that supports her and Jax. Even as the leads’ lives become increasingly difficult as law enforcement is seen as a threat rather than a source of protection, there’s a delicious sense that their enjoyment won’t be diminished if they’re allowed one more dance.