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‘Fancy Dance’ with Lily Gladstone balances heartbreak, humor in story of a missing Indigenous woman

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lily Gladstone knows the gravity stories about what she calls the “epidemic” of missing and murdered Indigenous people have. But she also values humor in telling those stories.
Lily Gladstone, left, and Isabel Deroy-Olson pose for a portrait to promote the film "Fancy Dance" on Sunday, June 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lily Gladstone knows the gravity stories about what she calls the “epidemic” of missing and murdered Indigenous people have. But she also values humor in telling those stories.

In “Fancy Dance,” set for a limited theatrical release Friday and streaming release on Apple TV+ June 28, Gladstone plays Jax, who has cared for her niece, Roki, since her sister’s disappearance on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma. As the pair searches for their loved one and prepares for Roki’s upcoming powwow, they share moments of unexpected levity baked into the emotional story.

“You would be very hard pressed to find any Indigenous person in North America today that is not touched by an element of the story very personally,” Gladstone said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “We all know an MMIP (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person). It’s something that we all collectively kind of grieve and work to fix. … We stick together and we survive through it by being funny, by finding humor in it.”

Newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson, who stars alongside Gladstone as Roki, said the film’s humor helps the audience get through the heavier moments of the story — which was also true for the actors.

“With all of us having a pretty similar sense of humor, we brought that behind the scenes, too, as a way to kind of lift each other up, and that’s so true in all of our communities,” she said. “We just we like to laugh with each other. Showing that both on and off screen was really important to us.”

“You have to keep joy, you have to keep laughter, and you have to keep our optimism in order to survive an ongoing genocide," said director and co-writer Erica Tremblay.

Named after Jacqueline “Jax” Agtuca, who works for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Gladstone’s character grows frustrated with the lack of attention or care authorities put towards her sister’s case and turns to her community for help in the search. Gladstone said amplifying this kind of story on screen without it being “shoved down anybody’s throat” can inspire change.

“By being and embodying a character, a person who’s going through the steps of doing that work, you’re inviting the audience into that perspective, into that world where they get to learn about the jurisdictional loopholes and the inequities in society that are creating the obstacles for the characters they’re rooting for,” she said.

“You learn about that obstacle in a way that you have a desire to change it, instead of just hearing about it in a PowerPoint presentation or as a talking point on a news segment that you’re going to fast forward through because you’re more interested in what the score was for your team,” Gladstone continued.

While movies and shows have broached the subject of missing Indigenous people before, they've often been criticized for coming up short in accurately and respectfully depicting the issue or don't reach a wide audience. Taylor Sheridan, co-creator of Paramount hit “Yellowstone,” wrote and directed one of the very few widely distributed films about the topic with 2017's “Wind River.”

ABC's 2022 drama “Alaska Daily” also explored violence against Native women and the lack of attention paid to their cases, but was canceled after one season. ABC had previously put out “Big Sky,” a Montana-set drama that premiered in 2020 and caught flak for centering on white victims instead of Indigenous women, who make up the majority of the state's missing and murdered population.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are approximately 4,200 missing and murdered cases nationally that have gone unsolved.

“Fancy Dance” focuses on the lack of institutional support and jurisdictional issues that make solving cases of missing Indigenous people difficult. In another shift from its predecessors, “Fancy Dance” does not show any violence against women on screen, a move that is often viewed as exploitative.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023, and despite critical acclaim, it had not been picked up by a distributor until over a year later. Tremblay said the filmmaking team didn’t see the offers they were expecting based on how they were “hitting the checklist of what it takes to make a successful indie film,” but noted that the film landing on Apple’s streaming service is their “dream ending.”

“The lynchpin to the whole plan to get this film out into the world was Lily’s continued advocacy of the film and the beautiful moment that that she and all of the Indigenous cast and crew of “Killers of the Flower Moon” had last year,” Tremblay said. “Lily using some of that shine to aim at “Fancy Dance,” I think was critical for us and we’re so grateful to be where we’re at.”

Kaitlyn Huamani, The Associated Press