It’s not often you see a backroom lap dance where the customer emits more apathy than the stripper. But when Jax (Lily Gladstone) hands a few extra $20s to a dancer who offers to grind on her for free, it’s clear that she has little interest in titillations of any kind. After a few moments, she zones out and directs her attention to the litany of more pressing issues in her life.

She’s had a lot on her mind in the weeks since her sister went suspiciously missing from the Seneca-Cayuga reservation. In addition to begging federal law enforcement agencies to feign interest in finding the lost woman and trying to figure out what information her friends on the tribal police force are withholding from her, she also has a pre-teen girl to raise. She’s temporarily taken in her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), who appears to be deflecting her own emotions about her missing mother by pouring every ounce of her energy into learning dance moves and prepping her outfit for the tribe’s upcoming Pow Wow. Jax can tell that a dark secret about her sister’s disappearance is swirling through the underbelly of meth dealers that surround her reservation, but she holds it in with the hope of creating a stable home environment for the girl. It’d be enough to make anyone disassociate in a strip club.

Roki adapts to the new living arrangements as well as possible under the circumstances, but that doesn’t stop Child Protective Services from taking the girl anyway. Despite Jax’s years of sobriety, a background check flagged her history of making ends meet as a drug runner as a safety concern. But she immediately sees the bureaucratic excuses for what they really are: an opening for Roki’s manipulative white grandfather, Frank (Shea Whigham), to worm his way back into the family. The man’s endgame isn’t immediately clear, but his cryptic way of speaking and the juxtaposition between his disinterest in finding his own daughter and his insistence on taking his granddaughter make it clear he has one.

Once it becomes clear that every source of support a human should theoretically be able to rely on — family, friends, and law enforcement — is working against Jax, she decides that nothing in her life will improve until she finds her sister. She gets back into the drug game, if only because it gives her an excuse to talk to the kinds of lowlifes that might have been around when her sister disappeared. When the clues still don’t add up, she kidnaps Roki under the false promise of taking her to meet her mom at the Pow Wow and makes a final desperate attempt to reunite her family while every cop in Oklahoma searches for her.

Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance” is a film that does many things at once. It’s simultaneously a missing person thriller whose outcome is hidden only by our unwillingness to look in the ugliest possible direction, an uneasy coming-of-age story about the relationship between a teenage girl and an aunt thrust into a parenting role she was never made for, and a politically charged tableau about the problems our society deems worthy of solving and the ones we’re content to ignore. All those narrative goals are filtered through the character of Jax, and the film’s ability to achieve most of them is a testament to a career-best performance from Gladstone.

The actress’ greatest strength has always been her ability to silently let endless amounts of trauma and internal calculation seep through her eyes, and Tremblay puts that skill to good use. But the contradictory roles that Jax’s circumstances have forced her to play allow the actress to paint with an expanded palette. There are moments to calculate silently, but she also has to nurture, negotiate, and take action in equal measure. The void that her missing sister left in Jax’s soul never goes away, but Gladstone navigates her impossible choices with all the desperation of a smart woman with no other choice.

It’s unfair to Tremblay and everyone else who worked on “Fancy Dance” that their film was always destined to be compared to “Killers of the Flower Moon.” But certain parallels — both films are Apple releases that star Gladstone as a Native American woman forced to navigate law enforcement’s indifference to the disappearances of other Native American women and her white in-laws’ dastardly schemes — make the conversation inevitable. Many voices will no doubt try to cast “Fancy Dance” as a companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s $200 million Osage Nation epic that addresses one of the most prominent criticisms of his film by placing the Native women front and center.

But while those who walked out of “Killers” wishing Gladstone had a more prominent role than Leonardo DiCaprio — even if such a hypothetical movie would have a fundamentally different message than what Scorsese sought to deliver — should find “Fancy Dance” more to their liking, Tremblay’s film deserves to be appreciated as more than a mere addendum to a bigger movie. On its own terms, the film is an exquisite star vehicle for one of Hollywood’s best rising actresses and an engaging thriller about the contradictions that form when you can’t assemble the puzzle of your own life without relying on pieces you’d rather throw away.

Jax and Roki’s circumstances result from their societal invisibility, but with any luck, the number of viewers who see “Fancy Dance” will exceed the number of people who ever saw them for who they really are.

Grade: B+

An Apple release, “Fancy Dance” is now playing in select theaters. It streams globally on Apple TV+ beginning on June 28.

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