On Saturday, the Athena Film Festival screened “Fancy Dance,” director Erica Tremblay’s captivating debut feature about a family attempting to navigate tragedy in the Seneca-Cayuga Nation.

It would be insufficient to say that Fancy Dance is exquisite, though it is. The film, which screened Saturday in the Diana Center Events Oval as part of this year’s Athena Film Festival, is also a feat of filmmaking. The debut narrative feature from Seneca-Cayuga filmmaker Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance stars Lily Gladstone as Jax, a lonely hustler living in her childhood home on a Seneca-Cayuga Nation reservation in Oklahoma when she’s suddenly tasked with raising her 13-year-old niece, Roki, after her sister, Roki’s mother Tawi, disappears. When the search for Tawi appears to stall and Jax learns her criminal record will bar her from serving as Roki’s guardian, the pair set out to find Tawi on their own, doing whatever it takes to survive and stay together along the way. Set in the week leading up to an annual powwow where Roki and Tawi were once set to dance, the film tracks aunt and niece on a winding journey across Oklahoma as they attempt to navigate a complex bond, evade law enforcement, and hold on to a fleeting sense of hope. 

Fancy Dance came to Athena over a year after its initial premiere—to rave reviews—at Sundance in 2023, though unlike most Sundance favorites, it was not acquired for wider distribution until last month. In the interim year, Tremblay arranged screenings at any festival that had the space, and even more screenings on various Indigenous reservations across the country. During a post-screening panel on Saturday alongside Jennifer Loren, senior director of Cherokee Film, and Oglala Lakota/Diné filmmaker Razelle Benally, Tremblay explained she wanted to ensure the audiences seeing Fancy Dance weren’t just studio executives, but people on reservations, “the people this movie was made for.” In addition to these screenings, in November 2023, Tremblay and Miciana Alise, her co-writer on the Fancy Dance screenplay, published a pointed op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter in which they questioned why, in a year where Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon has received such unequivocal praise, Hollywood is still so reluctant to spotlight stories actually created by Indigenous artists. It also helps that the film has had the unrelenting support of its star, Lily Gladstone, who has used much of the platform that comes with her ongoing Oscar campaign to shout out Fancy Dance. Thankfully, the combination of Tremblay’s tenacity in her promotion and Gladstone’s recent meteoric rise was enough to convince AppleTV that Fancy Dance was worth its investment, and the film will be released on that platform later this year. Though the streamer may be a year late to the party, it’s correct—Fancy Dance is more than worth it.

But even without Tremblay’s year-long fight to get distribution for Fancy Dance, the project still would have been a feat of filmmaking. For one, the dialogue is spoken largely in Cayuga, a language so endangered that it only has about 21 remaining fluent speakers. In the world of Fancy Dance, however, tribal members of all ages speak the language fluently and pepper it throughout their conversations. (“It’s aspirational,” explained Tremblay at the post-screening panel). And yes, if you’re counting, this does mark the second major project in as many years for which Lily Gladstone has learned an entirely new language to near-native fluency to play the lead. It may also be the least impressive part of her masterful performance.

Indeed, Gladstone is expectedly stunning as Jax. Her performance is a masterclass in balance—she’s at once gruff and gentle, impulsive and anxiety-ridden, riddled with grief and guilt, and, against all odds, optimistic as a character wholly unprepared for parenthood and determined to raise her niece nonetheless. However, part of what makes Gladstone so compelling as Jax is that she’s supported by an equally powerful ensemble—Shea Whigham is at peak form as Jax and Tawi’s absentee father, Frank, Crystle Lightning and Ryan Begay round out a solid ensemble with grounded performances as Jax’s love interest, Sapphire, and brother, JJ, and most of all, Isabel Deroy-Olson is prodigious and staggering as Roki, the film’s emotional center. 

If Gladstone’s performance is remarkably balanced, it’s in part because the script itself, written by Tremblay and Alise, is its own kind of balancing act. Fancy Dance is a story wrapped up in larger social issues—generational poverty, the inadequacy of Child Protective Services, the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and the law enforcement systems that overlook them—but those ideas don’t just exist as large abstractions. Instead, at its core, the film could not be more intimate, the story of one family attempting to forge a bond in the wake of tragedy even as it feels like the entire world is working against them. Jax is Roki’s aunt, but she’s also—as Cayuga language describes—her knohá:ˀah, or “small mother,” a title that becomes all the more important in Tawi’s absence. As Tremblay herself explained in the post-screening panel, Fancy Dance is a mother-daughter story, even if it doesn’t look like one on its face. 

Fancy Dance is also a film distinctly uninterested in upholding the “noble savage” trope, where Indigenous people are portrayed as innately and unfailingly moral, but only as a function of being primitive and passive to their fates. Jax and Roki, consistently abandoned by any system that should support them, instead make their own way in the world, shoplifting, dealing drugs, and even stealing cars when they need to, and eventually becoming detectives in their own right as investigations of Tawi’s disappearance stall. (“Indigenous people have been portrayed as just ‘noble’ for so long.” explained Tremblay on Saturday. “People keep asking me if I’m afraid of ‘making my community look bad’ by showing [Jax and Roki] stealing. Have you guys seen Saltburn? White people have been allowed to be any kind of evil.”) Instead, Fancy Dance is unafraid to show its protagonists in all their complexity and moral grey areas—and the story feels all the more powerful for it.

Shot in Cherokee country, another of the film’s most striking elements is how Tremblay navigates place and setting on the reservation. Though entirely place-specific, to the point that the reservation feels like almost as much of a character as Tawi herself, Tremblay is less interested in introducing this setting to her audience from an anthropological perspective, as something novel. Instead, the reservation feels lived-in and familiar—every element of it that we see, we see through the eyes of Jax, who has known this place her entire life and has chosen, time and time again, to remain. We’re shown at some points its most dangerous corners, the parts of it ravaged by generational poverty, and its most tragic truths, but we’re also shown that there is no better place for Jax, and possibly no better place for Roki. 

But if the reservation is a sort of phantom character in Fancy Dance, this is even more true of Tawi. Tawi herself never appears in the film as a character—by the time it begins, we’re told she’s already been missing for several weeks—but she looms over every scene. We first come to know Tawi through Roki’s eyes, as a warm, safe caregiver who has taught her anything she knows about womanhood. Then, we see her through the eyes of Jax, who knows another, more complicated version of her beloved sister, and whose fierce determination to find her is haunted by the creeping notion that there may be parts of Tawi unknown to her still. In flashes, we get other elements of the truth, however hard to stomach, as a winding cast of suspicious characters reveals additional details about the weeks leading up to her disappearance. Portrayed in bits and pieces by Hauli Grey, we see Tawi only in flashes—a home video of her dancing with Roki at last year’s powwow, a box of outfits for the strip club hidden in the back of her closet, and most prominently, her photo on the missing persons flyer that Jax hands out at every turn, hoping for some missing puzzle piece to answer her lingering questions. Tawi, though her family clings to the notion that she is still out there, somewhere, starts off Fancy Dance already a ghost—never seen, only perceived. 

Perhaps this is part of what makes Fancy Dance the unequivocal standout of this year’s Athena Film Festival—it manages to be so many different movies at once. It’s a crime thriller about the real-life crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, an intimate family drama about a parent and child unprepared to fill those roles, a sprawling epic about two wayward travelers on the reservation and the road, a ghost story. Or maybe what makes the film stand out is the two commanding lead performances by Gladstone and Deroy-Olson, its masterful script, or Tremblay’s precise hold on her setting. But really, Fancy Dance is so remarkable because Tremblay is right: hers is a story that is rarely platformed, even less so when it’s told by Indigenous women themselves. Fancy Dance, a story by and about Indigenous women in all their complexities, may be just one of so many stories out there like it, but it feels like something so much bigger—the precipice of a new wave for Indigenous storytelling and how it’s received.

Fancy Dance promotional still via Athena Film Festival