Lily Gladstone Is Remarkable as a Butch Lesbian in ‘Fancy Dance’

Stories about the Indigenous experience from Native voices have become more visible in the cinema landscape in recent years — it’s long overdue. Finally, crucial aspects of Native life within modern America are being shown through original contemplative stories. Movies such as The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Lakota Nation vs. the United States, and Wild Indian are vital. These films highlight the poor treatment Indigenous communities continue to face, while also being intimate and character-driven.

Erica Tremblay’s debut drama, Fancy Dance, confronts the ongoing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women — it’s also a thoughtful narrative about an aunt and her niece’s quest to locate her sister in time for a Native Powwow.

Jax (Lily Gladstone) is a butch lesbian living in the Seneca–Cayuga Nation reservation in Oklahoma. Since the disappearance of her sister Tawi, Jax has been the sole guardian of her 13-year-old niece, Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson in a star turning debut). At every opportunity, Jax treks across the land, asking if anyone has seen her sister. It is often to the dismay of her sheriff half-brother JJ, who barely offers any help outside of suggesting to give up. When not searching, Jax is helping Roki prep her dance for her first powwow.

Child protective services comes in and deems Jax unfit to legally take care of Roki — mostly on account of her drinking problem and carelessness to keep Roki safe. The state places Roki, instead, with her white grandparents, Frank (Shea Whigham) and Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), who want her to embrace their white lifestyle. In retaliation, Jax kidnaps Roki and takes her on a trip across the land in hopes of finding Tawi.

With Fancy Dance, writer/director Erica Tremblay brings Indigenous culture to the forefront, centering the lens of the Seneca–Cayuga Nation community. From the opening frame to the very end, Tremblay passionately demonstrates the deep connection they share with the land and their community. Many of those values are rooted within Jax, who tries to hustle just to provide for herself and Roki, even as she keeps finding herself in trouble.

While concentrating on the tribe, Tremblay stresses the painful weight a missing person has on a family and how the negligence of the state from the sheriff to the FBI increases that pain. It’s those aspects of Fancy Dance that resonate deepest. It’s a relief to get authentic voices handling these issues, as opposed to someone like Taylor Sheridan who capitalize on Indigenous struggles.

Surprising no one, Fancy Dance offers another incredible, strong-willed performance from Lily Gladstone. As Jax, they embody that cool lesbian aunt you always wanted to have who is so chill, dresses in plaid and tanks, and tries to handle everything independently, despite her decisions being impulsive and questionable.

It’s also worth mentioning that Gladstone filmed this during her production breaks for Killers of a Flower Moon, which I imagine was emotionally taxing. How did Lily Gladstone film a heavy drama about the blasé nonchalance this country’s law enforcement has towards missing and murdered Indigenous women during their breaks on another heavy drama about the blasé nonchalance this country’s law enforcement has towards missing/murdered Indigenous women?! These two films side-by-side — one a period piece, one contemporary — show the ways America has and continues to steal Indigenous lives.

While it’s Gladstone’s performance that anchors the film, it’s greatly boosted by the endearing relationship they share with charming newcomer, Isabel Deroy-Olson. As Roki, Deroy-Olson treads between compassionate and anarchic, standing her ground alongside Gladstone. She carries such grace in Tremblay’s subtle character moments, emphasizing Roki’s longing for her mom with simple glares. Roki and Jax share a strong bond as auntie and niece, which makes many of their conflicting issues across the story’s second half emotionally resonant.

However, Fancy Dance can’t always escape the “Sundance-made” conventions of a 90-minute indie-movie. Tremblay mines several intense sequences from their predicament — a scene involving an interaction with an ICE agent is a highlight tension building moment — but, often the script is more concerned with raising the stakes further than allowing the already high stakes of Roki’s kidnapping to play out. The film moves quickly to each set piece and emotional character moment, when it could have used an additional twenty minutes or so to expand on and settle into the story.

Nevertheless, Fancy Dance is an essential, important Indigenous drama. It’s eye-opening in the subject matter it tackles, while also being a well-told familial tale. With strong performances from Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson, Erica Tremblay’s debut is a worthwhile watch.

Fancy Dance is currently streaming on Apple TV

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Rendy Jones

Rendy Jones (they/he) is a film and television journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. They are the world's first gwen-z film journalist and owner of self-published independent outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics' Choice Association, GALECA, and a screenwriter. They have been seen in Vanity Fair, Them,, Rolling Stone, and Paste.

Rendy has written 12 articles for us.


  1. While i was sad only London cinemas were showing this, I’ve got a little viewing set up with myself for Sunday night! Great to hear it’s just as good as hoped, even with the Sundance moments

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