Producers: Deidre Backs, Erica Tremblay, Heather Rae, Nina Yang Bongiovi and Tommy Oliver   Director: Erica Tremblay   Screenplay: Erica Tremblay and Miciana Alise   Cast: Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Shea Whigham, Ryan Begay, Crystle Lightning, Audrey Wasilewski, Lillian Faye Thomas, Blayne Allen, Blake Blair, Trey Munden, Kylie Dirtseller, Cory Hart, Dennis Newman and Hauli Gray   Distributor: Apple+

Grade: C+

Erica Tremblay’s debut feature is the sort of film one would very much like to praise.  Focusing on the harsh realities of life that face Native Americans on reservations (Tremblay’s résumé includes work on “Dark Winds” and “Reservation Dogs,” and she is a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation), “Fancy Dance” touches on many real issues of reservation life, especially the dangers facing indigenous women, but in a scattershot fashion that, combined with some lazy writing and flaccid pacing, undermines its power.

The central dynamic involves Jax (Lily Gladstone) and her thirteen-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson).  Jax is taking care of Roki in a run-down house on the reservation that they share with Roki’s mother Tawi (Hauli Gray), a stripper at a local club who’s disappeared like so many other women.  Whether Jax is a suitable guardian is an open question: she has a criminal record of petty theft and drug-dealing, and Roki is following in her footsteps (as well as, presumably, her mother’s)—in the opening sequence, the two conspire to steal a truck from a guy fishing in the woods. 

But Jax clearly loves Roki, and the girl’s devoted to her.  That’s why a crisis erupts when Child Protective Services begins an investigation into their living arrangement.  In a suspicious coincidence Frank (Shea Whigham), the widowed father of Jax and her sister, shows up with his second wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), exuding concern, and shortly afterward the authorities intervene to remove Roki from Jax’s house and place her with them.

Frank and Nancy aren’t terrible guardians, but he seems distant, and while she tries to get close to the girl—obviously unhappy at not having had children of her own—she’s blithely obtuse about the importance of her culture to Roki, which is now centered on her determination to get to the upcoming tribal pow-wow in Montana, an event at which she and Tawi always danced together in their colorful tribal regalia, and where she expects they will reunite.

Desperate, Jax decides to take Roki (and Frank’s car) to the powwow, a move that will shortly result in an Amber Alert identifying Jax as a kidnapper.  The film turns into a road trip with the authorities in pursuit, one marked by several episodes of thievery—(among them of gas at a service station and of a car, a caper that also results in Roki’s acquisition of a gun which, following Chekhov’s law, will have to be used after being introduced).  They also spend a night in an unoccupied house and take a side trip to Tulsa, where Jax seeks the help of Roki’s hostile paternal grandmother Lillie (Lillian Faye Thomas) in tracking down Tawi.

Meanwhile JJ (Ryan Begay), a reservation cop who’s also Jax’s half-brother, is trying to clean up the mess she’s left behind with the federal authorities while she keeps prodding him to ramp up the effort to find Tawi.  She passes along the few scraps of information she’s discovered herself, beginning with the little she learned at the start from Tawi’s fellow dancer Sapphire (Crystle Lightning), who also happens to be Jax’s lover, and then from Ryan (Trey Munden), a lackey of drug kingpin Tanner (Blake Blair), and finally from Lillie’s granddaughter Phaya (Kylie Dirtseller).   In what can only be termed an absurd twist of inspiration, JJ uses them to resolve the missing person mystery with ridiculous ease in the scrap metal junkyard overseen by scruffy Boo (Blayne Allen).

That’s only one turn in the last third of the movie that suggests that Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise realized that they needed to tie together all the narrative threads they’d left dangling quickly if clumsily.  So we get the beginning of Roki’s physical coming-of-age (the whole picture can be seen as her emotional one), interrupted by an intrusion by an ICE Agent (Cory Hart) that closes with a whimper rather than a bang.  And of course there’s a bittersweet finale at the powwow, where Jax fully embraces the meaning she’d earlier explained of “Aunt” in Seneca-Cayuga. (What follows for both of the, though, is left to the viewer’s imagination.)  

It’s admirable that Tremblay has sought to engage so many aspects of reservation life in her film, and sporadically they hit home emotionally.  Overall, however, her skill in juggling them proves uncertain, and Robert Grigsby Wilson’s erratic editing provides little help.  Nor does she offer much assistance to her cast, most of whom appear to have been left to their own devices.  This isn’t a terrible problem for Gladstone, although her performance doesn’t exhibit the subtlety her work for Scorsese did in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” frequently seeming more generalized than nuanced.  Deroy-Olson, however, suffers.  She’s lovely, and handles the less demanding scenes well enough, but in more dramatic moments can be stilted, every amateurish.  And while Whigham can rely on his years of experience, Begay too can come off as a mite clumsy.  The rest of the cast varies from adequate to barely so. 

Shot on location in Oklahoma, the movie has a gritty, natural look, marked by a fairly ascetic production design (Charlotte Royer), costumes (Amy Higdon) and cinematography (Carolina Costa).  Samantha Crain’s score is negligible, but the indigenous material is, of course, evocative. 

“Fancy Dance” has many impressive elements.  A pity they’re not put together more effectively.