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“Fancy Dance” reviewed

Lily Gladstone doesn’t have to speak to convey strength; we’ve seen her do remarkable things with quiet, in “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the Hulu series “Under the Bridge.” Appropriately, her character Jax in Erica Tremblay’s soulful drama “Fancy Dance” is a woman of few words; she’s a tough drifter who’s not above a little drug-dealing or petty theft (becoming less petty as the film goes on). But Jax is also a tower of strength, which Gladstone conveys through a carefully set jaw, a slightly heavy walk, a certainty to her dusk-toned voice. This woman is taking care of her 13-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson); searching tirelessly for her sister Tawi (Roki’s mother), who’s gone missing on their Cherokee Nation reservation; and trying her best to keep her extended family connected. You sense that no one ever thanks Jax, and also that it probably doesn’t matter; she’d do it all anyway.

“Fancy Dance” immerses us quickly in its characters’ lives, with Roki excitedly planning to dance at the upcoming powwow with her mother and Jax revealing a sweet connection with a performer at the strip club where Tawi once worked. (“I give you this money,” Jax tells her after a private dance, “because I respect you.”) The outside world, however, just as quickly invades: Jax, with her criminal record, is deemed by Child Protective Services to not be an adequate guardian for Roki, who’s taken away to live with Jax’s white father (Shea Whigham) and his wife (Audrey Wasilewski). Jax, however, is not the sort to take no for an answer, and off she and Roki go, on a road trip in search of Tawi, the powwow and maybe some answers.

Whether they find any of these I won’t reveal (though there is a dance, and it’s glorious, two people disappearing into joy); what they do find is a remarkable connection: an aunt and niece providing strength for each other, propping each other up, lighting each other’s way. And Tremblay, for whom a goal of the film was to bring attention to the plight of missing Indigenous women, lets us see the character who isn’t there, and the empty space Tawi’s absence leaves. Throughout the film, Jax and Roki often speak to each other in Cayuga; it’s a Native language that’s nearly extinct, but in this world it lives again, accentuating the pair’s bond. In a movie that reminds us that parenting comes in many forms, it’s touching to learn that the Cayuga word for “aunt” is “small mother.” We almost didn’t need the definition; it’s visible, in Gladstone and Delroy-Olson’s eyes.