Thursday , April 18 2024
Athena Film Festival Fancy Dance
(L to R): Isabel Delroy-Olson, Lily Gladstone in 'Fancy Dance' at Athena Film Festival (courtesy of Erica Tremblay and the film)

Athena Film Festival Review: ‘Fancy Dance’

The 14th Annual Athena Film Festival and Fancy Dance

Athena Film Festival opened last weekend celebrating its 14th year highlighting women artists and filmmakers. Athena is the premiere film festival in New York City that advances inclusion on screen and elevates women-centered stories. Held at Barnard College, the labs and schedule of films proved to be cutting edge. Filmmakers, friends, and supporters conducted talk backs and conversations, and experienced events that explored what it means to be a woman today among diverse groups. One film offering a panel talk back was Fancy Dance.

The award-winning Fancy Dance screened on Saturday at the Event Oval at Barnard College. Directed by Erica Tremblay, written by Erica Tremblay and Miciana Alise, the film shines as an Athena Film Festival offering. The ninety minute feature (which has been picked up by Apple+) stars Lily Gladstone who has been nominated for an Academy Award and has received multiple awards from nation-wide critics’ associations, film festivals, and a SAG and Golden Globe award for her amazing performance in Martin Scorsese’s masterwork, Killer’s of the Flower Moon.

In the intriguing Fancy Dance, Lily Gladstone portrays Jax, a Queer Indigenous woman, whose girlfriend Sapphire (Crystal Lightning), worked with Jax’s sister at a bar that features lap dancing. Jax, her sister, and Roki (Isabel Delroy-Olson), her niece, live together. At the opening of the film, we understand that the sister has gone missing, and Jax appears to be the only one looking for her in the community. Though the community notes the disappearance, the sister has gone missing before and eventually turns up.

Director Erica Tremblay twits “Indian” Stereotypes in the Character of Jax

However, Jax has a premonition that she will never return this time. Feeling guilty about lying to thirteen-year-old Roki, who misses her mother, Jax comforts Roki by telling her she will return in time for the state powwow. Since her mother is a great dancer, Roki looks forward to going with her. Then, she and her mother will be together and cement their mother-daughter bond in a traditional dance.

Trembly unabashedly reveals Jax’s lifestyle as a hustler and thief who lives “catch as catch can.” With Roki, she steals a vehicle (driven by a white male owner). Making her niece an accomplice, she drives it to an area chop shop and collects a nominal amount of money. When they stop at a convenience store, Roki furtively helps herself to a few items she likes without paying. Twitting the typical stereotype of thieving “Indians,” the filmmaker draws us into this aunt-niece relationship because of the terrific performances by Gladstone and Delroy-Oleon. We feel sympathy for these characters who actually move against stereotype because of the situation and depth of characterizations.

Specifically, the film sneaks beyond stereotype because Roki’s mom has disappeared. The likelihood of her returning diminishes each day. Considering the amount of disappearances that happen with Indigenous women, the situation highlights an important theme. White men prey upon indigenous women as objects. Treating them like chattel, such men abuse Native American women for sex and sadism. Jax’s preference for women has most probably been shaped by knowledge of her sister’s life with such men. Most probably Jax feels she has more control and receives less torment loving a woman.

The Screenwriters Leave us Hanging in the Balance.

The screenwriters leave us hanging in the balance. On the one hand, we hope with Roki that her mother will return. On the other hand, we fear with Jax, that a man killed her and eventually, she will find the clues that lead to her sister’s corpse.

The turning point gyrates the situation into tension and heartbreak when an agent from Social Services visits their home. Suddenly, Jax’s protection shifts with this new threat. Roki will be taken away from her and placed in a Foster Care. Initially, Jax dismisses Social Services and lies to them about Roki’s whereabouts. Though Roki questions her aunt about the truth, Jax finds its inevitably too painful. Instead, Jax uses lies of omission and commission to keep Roki from the additional trauma of separation.

Eventually, Social Services catches up with Jax and Roki, and they take Roki away. Jax and her sister’s white father, Frank (Shea Whigham), offers temporary custody of Roki, since Jax is not a fit custodian. Jax and Roki have dinner with Frank and stepmother Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), who shows Roki her lovely room. Apparently amenable living with her grandfather and step grandmother, Roki stays. However, she learns that her grandparents won’t attend or take her to the powwow. Jax assures Roki that perhaps she can go next year, but that truth is hard for Roki to swallow.

Jax Discovers Information Leading to her Sister’s Body.

When Jax discovers information which leads her to discover her sister’s body, the traumatic reveal devastates her. Just prior to this discovery, Roki overhears Jax talk to JJ (Ryan Begay), who was supposed to be helping locate her sister. From Jax’s uncertain tone of voice, she realizes that Jax doesn’t know her mom’s whereabouts. Upset, Roki loses trust in her aunt who has been hiding the truth from her.

After Jax discovers her sister’s body in a red truck used by an oil worker, she informs JJ and decides to leave. But she intends to leave with Roki. So, Jax goes back to her Dad’s house and convinces Roki to come with her. Together they can give each other comfort and eventually, perhaps, make it to the state powwow. Unfortunately, Jax’s intentions turn upside down and she endangers their lives. Tension builds with each suspenseful event and we question Jax’s neediness to make rash decisions.

With Superb Characters and a Timely Situation, Fancy Dance is a Tour de Force

With superb characters and a realistic, and timely situation, Trembly creates a tour de force that engages. Keeping events surprising, the filmmaker teases out a portrait of an undaunted woman who struggles against the hand she has been dealt. Of course, the struggle encompasses caring for Roki, who seeks to embrace her heritage by attending the powwow. Interestingly, Trembly, an indigenous woman herself, presents an authentic, perceptive “mother-daughter” story that stays poignant and real.

Look for Fancy Dance streaming in the fall on Apple+. Read about Athena Film Festival offerings and Fancy Dance at their website