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'Fancy Dance': Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson revitalize an almost extinct language in Erica Tremblay's film

The movie on Apple TV+ is a celebration of womanhood, set amid the horrors of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Killers of the Flower Moon Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone stars alongside Isabel Deroy-Olson, of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation in Yukon and the Ebb and Flow First Nation in Manitoba, in the Apple TV+ movie Fancy Dance. Directed and co-written by Erica Tremblay, this coming-of-age film is part family drama, part crime thriller and a celebration of womanhood, while exploring the horrors of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Set on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma, Jax (Gladstone) is looking after her teenage niece Roki (Deroy-Olson), after Jax's sister Tawi (Hauli Sioux Gray) goes missing. As time passes, Roki starts getting worried that her mother won't be back for the upcoming powwow, in which she wants to participate in the ceremonial mother-daughter dance.

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Jax will do absolutely everything she can for her niece. But with no new information about Tawi, Jax is at risk of losing custody of Roki, who could be placed in the care of Jax's absentee father Frank (Shea Whigham). That leads to Jax and Roki setting off together through the backcountry to try to find Tawi before the powwow.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Gladstone explained that while doing press for Killers of the Flower Moon with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese described their film as one he's made that he enjoys watching. That's how Gladstone feels about Fancy Dance.

"To have Fancy Dance immediately after [Killers of the Flower Moon] feels like ... a continuation of the same conversation 100 years later, with its lens focused more deeply into what that natural matrilineal relationship and love is," Gladstone said.

Having worked with Tremblay previously on the short film Little Chief, Gladstone added that she will continue to be an active participant in the filmmaker's work.

"I was hoping that she wanted to work with me again, I was hoping she had a feature in her," Gladstone said. "We're going to continue to work together for as long as she's churning them out, and as long as I'm doing it."

For Deroy-Olson, the film is the first time she's felt completely proud of her work.

"I've never been 100 per cent proud of anything, but I'm 100 per cent proud of this film," Deroy-Olson said. "In the moment I expected that to change a little bit over the past year, but it hasn't."

(L-R) US actresses Isabel Deroy-Olson, Lily Gladstone and US filmmaker Erica Tremblay attend the premiere of Apple Original Films'
(L-R) US actresses Isabel Deroy-Olson, Lily Gladstone and US filmmaker Erica Tremblay attend the premiere of Apple Original Films' "Fancy Dance" at the Directors Guild of America in New York City on June 17, 2024. (Photo by Andrea RENAULT / AFP) (Photo by ANDREA RENAULT/AFP via Getty Images)

In this world Tremblay has built, we see younger generations of women, represented by Jax and Roki, fluent in the Cayuga language. In reality, there are less than 20 first-language Cayuga speakers in the world, making it a nearly extinct language.

Tremblay was inspired to really integrate the language into the story as she was participating in a three-year Cayuga language program, and brought that language to the crew on the film as well.

"There's this really vibrant revitalization effort of people trying to reclaim the language that was taken from us violently through the boarding school structures and in other ways," Tremblay said. "I was inspired to imagine a modern-day world where young people like Jax and Roki speak the language fluently."

"We took it so seriously. One of the members of my cohort for my language immersion was on set the whole time and we translated the set calls like action and cut, ... to Cayuga, so the crew was using Cayuga. It was a really vibrant living language, not just on screen, but behind the scenes as well. ... And, of course, to see the matriarchy in my language and the importance of matrilineal kinship, to try and apply the important relationships between women into the modern day setting as well was such a huge inspiration."

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

In terms of the film's exploration of the relationship between Roki and Jax, there are several particularly impactful moments, including one where we see Jax have Roki's first moon ritual, when she gets her period for the first time.

"As Indigenous peoples we're so diverse and there are so many various women ceremonies and coming-of age-ceremonies, and that one specifically was so beautiful, because it was so intimate," Deroy-Olson about that scene in the film. "And that moment between Jax and Roki, it was a moment of transformation."

"I feel like Roki goes through this coming-of-age throughout the film towards womanhood, and I think that the fact that Jax was right there next to her, it really mirrors the rest of the film, because she's constantly learning from Jax, ... for better or for worse."

"In the midst of their world kind of coming apart around them, Jax still creates the space to give this moment the weight that it deserves in her life," Gladstone added. "I love that for a lot of audiences who will see this, it's showing an Indigenous relationship to womanhood, to femininity in a way that your moon doesn't carry shame. It's not something you tuck away and hide. It's not something that's a burden. It's something that is a really powerful thing."

Deroy-Olson also highlighted that throughout the film Roki is never "ashamed" of her culture or her body.

"There's never a moment of self consciousness with her, which I think is really beautiful, especially with younger audiences viewing the film," she said. "It's an amazing thing to teach our women and our young girls, because it's so important to feel proud of yourself and feel proud of your ceremonies, and your communities and your body. And it really is such an important conversation."

Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson star in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson star in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

In terms of executing Tawi's inclusion in Fancy Dance, Tremblay was tasked with showing the reality of her disappearance, while balancing the thriller elements of the story, and tackling Tawi's narrative in a way that isn't a commodification of pain and suffering, often described as "trauma porn."

"Very early on [co-writer Miciana Alise] and I knew we would never see a dead body, we would never go into the details of the violence of what befell Tawi," Tremblay stressed. "We wanted Tawi to exist as the mother and the sister that she was, and we wanted Tawi to exist in the memories and in the love shared between these women."

"We made this film with our communities and with Native Americans in mind, and we didn't want to re-traumatize or trigger people. But we also wanted to make a film where people could watch something that maybe they've gone through, or family members have gone through, and that there could be a bit of connection. ... We wanted the film to be accessible without pain for Native Americans. ... We were telling a story about [missing and murdered Indigenous women], and the murder and missing epidemic, but we didn't want to mine pain."

Tremblay added that this film can also be a "lesson" to non-Indigneous people, who can "walk away with more knowledge on topics than they had before."

"They're experiencing these things through the humanity of Jax and Roki," Tremblay said. "I personally have seen enough dead women on the screen, I don't need to see another dead woman on the TV or in a movie ever, and so I certainly didn't want to be a part of that with my own film."

"Hopefully the way that we approached it brought humanity to Tawi and into her role as a mother, her role as a sister, her role as a sex worker, her role as a human being, as a living woman on this earth."