Fancy Dance Ending, Explained: What Happened to Tawi?

‘Fancy Dance,’ the drama film helmed by Lily Gladstone, presents the uniquely profound relationship between an aunt and her niece, who desperately try to keep their family together in dire circumstances. After Tawi Goodiron goes missing, her sister, Jax, takes on the responsibility of finding her. Simultaneously, she looks after the former’s teen daughter, Roki, who looks forward to reuniting with her mother before the reservation’s upcoming powwow. As such, the cracks forming in the small family widen when the authorities take Roki away from her aunt and put the kid under her grandparent’s custody.

However, things take a drastic turn when Jax sneaks Roki away from the grandparents’ house, unwittingly inviting the FBI to launch a manhunt after her in the wake of her sister’s continued disappearance. After charting a heartfelt narrative, the film comes to an emotional climax. Yet, while compelling in its conclusion, the vague ending may incite intrigue within the viewers. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Fancy Dance Plot Synopsis

Two weeks into Tawi Goodiron’s disappearance, her family— sister, Jax, and thirteen-year-old daughter, Roki— have made no progress in finding her. Their community within the Oklahoma Indigenous reservation routinely disperses search parties, missing person posters overwhelm the area, and local cops, including the Goodiron brother JJ, investigate the case but to no avail. Frustratingly, Jax finds herself stuck in a bureaucratic loop between the State and the Feds when attempting to seek help from higher authorities. Through it all, the woman puts on a brave face for her niece, Roki, and gives her assurances of her mother’s safe return.

Nevertheless, the family faces further distress when Child Protective Services informs Jax that the State has ordered Roki to be removed from her care due to her previous criminal record from when she was involved in transporting drugs. Consequently, the teen is placed under her grandfather, Frank’s care, who moved away from the reservation years ago after his wife’s death. Now, he lives with his second wife, Nancy, sporting little connection with his granddaughter. Yet, even though Frank remains sympathetic to his daughter’s situation, he doesn’t allow Jax to take Roki to the upcoming powwow at Nancy’s insistence.

Meanwhile, Sapphire, a stripper with a soft spot for Jax, her regular customer, informs her that Tawi was spotted near the camps where the oil rig workers reside. As a result, Jax takes on a drug-running job to gather intel by visiting the camps and learns about her sister’s involvement with local drug-running gigs. Frustrated by her situation, Jax covertly arrives at Frank’s house and sneaks Roki away with a note for her father. Roki has been missing home terribly and is all too glad to be leaving with her aunt.

However, as the duo embarks on a road trip adventure, ripe with the occasional shoplifting, Frank and Nancy end up calling the cops on Jax. Since she wasn’t legally allowed to spend time with Roki unsupervised, the FBI launched a full-blown investigation after her, broadcasting their faces over news channels. Once Roki learns about the same, it compels her to steal a gun from a woman she pickpockets, keeping the weapon a secret even from her aunt. Furthermore, as it becomes clear that Jax isn’t returning, JJ tells her about a tip from the Feds about Tawi’s being spotted in Tulsa a few weeks ago.

Fancy Dance Ending: What Happened to Tawi? Is She Dead?

Following JJ’s tip, Jax drives to Tulsa with Roki, hellbent on finding answers about Tawi’s whereabouts. Once they arrive at their destination— the house of the reservations’ local drug dealers’ mother— Jax enters the den alone. Although she’s met with open hostility and tight lips, a young girl tells her that her sister last left Tulsa in a red truck. Jax shares the information with JJ even though she carries contempt for the many secrets he has kept from her to honor an “ongoing investigation.”

In turn, JJ follows up on Jax’s tip and asks around about a red truck, discovering one was spotted by the lake near the oil rig workers’ camps. Consequently, after some more snooping, he finds a wrecked red truck stowed away at the local salvage yard. With the crucial points in place connecting Tawi to the truck, the camps, and the lake, he’s able to report back to the FBI, who send in divers to the lake the following day. Thus, they find Tawi’s body in the lake, confirming her death. Although the mystery is never spelled out for the viewers, the narrative puts the pieces in place for the bigger picture to come together.

Tawi was a stripper who had taken to running drugs to make extra cash on the side. From there, she came into contact with the oil rig workers, to whom she often delivered drugs. As it would turn out, one of the workers was the owner of the red truck. Even though the details behind whatever happened between Tawi and the red truck owner aren’t revealed, it remains evident that the latter was responsible for her death. Thus, Jax’s visits to a few shady spots solve the mystery the Feds hadn’t cracked for weeks. In the end, Jax learns about the same while still on the run from the FBI, who have funneled resources into hunting after her but never spared them on Tawi’s investigation.

Does Roki Return to Her Grandparents?

During Jax and Roki’s trip to Tulsa, the teenager begins to realize that Jax’s promises of her mother’s return for the powwow may not be as concrete as she would like them to be. Worse yet, from the looks of it, the authorities will likely take her away from her true family to be placed under her estranged grandparents’ care permanently. Eventually, after she overhears a heated conversation between Jax and JJ, she realizes that her aunt believes her mother has died and has been handing her empty promises this entire time.

The same comes to a head when the pair stop at a gas station, where the owner recognizes the teenager from the news and attempts to call the cops. As a result, Roki pulls her hidden gun on the owner and accidentally shoots him. Afterward, she and Jax rush to leave the premises as help arrives. However, the circumstances overwhelm Roki, who snaps at her aunt for lying to her all along. Even though the latter’s actions were enacted with the young girl’s well-being in mind, she can’t help but feel betrayed. Furthermore, she holds Jax responsible for the negative repercussions their ill-advised trip will undoubtedly take on her upcoming custody battle.

Therefore, Roki takes out her anger at the system’s unfairness on Jax and leaves her for the police to return home. The next day, when Frank contacts Jax to share information about Tawi, the latter realizes Roki never returned to her grandparents’ house. Still, even as the dreadful realization sinks in, her aunt intrinsically knows where her niece would be. Throughout the film, the teenager looks forward to attending the powwow and expects to be reunited with her mother at the celebration.

Roki and Tawi have participated in the event’s mother-daughter dance every year, and she hopes this year will be the same. As such, distressed as she was, the young girl escaped to the powwow, longing for the comfort she usually found at the celebration. Although Jax fails to find her at the event, even as the mother-daughter dance passes by, she eventually spots Roki, who joins the crows for the memorial dance. The moment presents a bittersweet image of the young girl, oblivious to her mother’s demise, dancing to honor her memory.

Why Does the Film End With the Dance?

After Jax finds the answers to her sister’s disappearance and reunites with Roki and the long-awaited powwow, both characters’ emotional arcs come to an end in a sense. Furthermore, their reunion presents the perfect climax for the complexity of the relationship that the duo’s recent misadventures have put to the test. Earlier in the story, the viewers learn that even though Jax— much like her niece— used to dance, she gave up on the hobby after her own mother’s death. Therefore, as she joins Roki in the traditional dance that honors the departed and the missing people of their community, it becomes a bright moment of recognition and connection between the two characters.

Even so, one can’t help but wonder why the film chooses to end with the dance, considering the various other significant plotlines still at play. For one, as Jax joins Roki and the other dancers, a cop— stationed to be on the lookout— notices the woman. Since the FBI has been chasing after Jax, whom they consider to be a kidnapper, the same can only lead to adverse outcomes. Likewise, once Roki learns the truth about her mother, a new shadow will inevitably be cast upon the family and their happiness. Nonetheless, neither of those takes precedence over Jax and Roki’s reunion at the moment.

Despite the various plotlines, the relationship between Jax and Roki continues to take precedence in the film, forming its narrative nucleus. In showcasing their journey, the film highlights several points of conflict and contempt that plague Indigenous communities, including women’s disappearances and complicated legal battles. Yet, Jax and Roki’s bond shines through as the glue holding each narrative beat together. Therefore, it’s only fair for the story that begins with the duo’s easy companionship and crests at their tumultuous complications to end with an expression of their love and familiarity. Furthermore, the film finally brings the titular dance to the screen, proudly depicting the characters and heritage, symbolizing the family they have been fighting for all this time.

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