Fancy Dance review: Lily Gladstone is so, so watchable

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Fancy Dance is streaming on Apple TV+
Fancy Dance is streaming on Apple TV+ Credit: Apple

If Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon was the first time you saw Lily Gladstone in a role, it must have come as a revelation.

The actor with Native American heritage has incredible gravitas on screen. She doesn’t just command your attention, she demands it. And it’s never through hollering or shouting. Her mere presence can just hold your gaze.

Years before Scorsese’s high-profile epic, Gladstone’s break-out performance was in a small 2016 film called Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt.

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Reichardt is not a household name, but those who pay attention to talented female artists in indie cinema know Reichardt for her understated, character-driven stories such as First Cow and Meek’s Cutoff, and her continued collaborations with Michelle Williams.

Williams was in Certain Women, as was Laura Dern. The film is a triptych of stories, each centred on a woman connected to a community in Montana. Williams anchored one story, Dern another. The third featured Gladstone.

Up against two established and acclaimed actors, she upstaged them.

Fancy Dance is streaming on Apple TV+
Lily Gladstone in Fancy Dance. Credit: Apple

Gladstone’s portrayal of a young ranch hand whose loneliness drives her to find connections has little dialogue. It’s all about how she moves through her fictional world, and the subtle expressions on her face. It was profound and if you saw Certain Women, you’ve spent years waiting for Gladstone to finally get the opportunities her talent deserves.

Hollywood being what it is when it comes to women from diverse backgrounds that don’t look like Margot Robbie, Gladstone didn’t get her mainstream shot until Scorsese came calling, having seen her in Certain Women.

But just because she’s in the big leagues, doesn’t mean Gladstone doesn’t give her time over to smaller, compelling projects, especially those telling under-represented Indigenous stories.

Fancy Dance is a low budget drama, a feature debut for Native American filmmaker Erica Tremblay.

Gladstone plays Jax, a woman who has spent time in prison but is now back home on the reservation and living with her sister and niece. When Fancy Dance opens, her sister is missing and the community has been conducting searches but Jax’s pleas to the federal authorities for help goes unheard.

Fancy Dance is streaming on Apple TV+
Fancy Dance is made by first-time feature director Erica Tremblay. Credit: Apple

Her niece Roki (a superb Isabel DeRoy-Olson) is preparing for the annual mother-daughter dance at the powwow in Oklahoma, an event that brings together different Native communities.

When Jax loses guardianship of Roki to her father Frank (Shea Whigham), a white man who lived with Jax, her sister and her mother for 15 years on the reservation until her parents’ divorce, she and Roki hit the road to make the powwow.

Fancy Dance is a grounded and moving story that tells a straightforward story about family ties. But in its simplicity, it’s specific, authentic and lived-in.

It’s in the little things – the fact that law enforcement is minimising the case of yet another missing indigenous woman, or that Frank’s well-meaning second wife doesn’t understand the significance of powwow to Roki.

Gladstone puts in another tremendous performance as Jax, trying to figure out who she is to Roki, and how to protect her niece from the ugly truths in their world.

It’s an elegant film with a lot of restraint but packed emotions.

Rating: 3.5/5

Fancy Dance is streaming now on Apple TV+

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