Alexie centers this conflict on Seymour Polatkin, a gay poet who has moved off "the rez" to Seattle and enjoys a successful literary career. His best friend Aristotle Joseph went to college with Seymour but dropped out to return to the reservation where "Indians like us belong." Several years later, Seymour has received word that their old friend Mouse the Violin Player has killed himself. Seymour heads back to the rez for the funeral where Anges Roth, his college girlfriend who is both Spokane and Jewish, is a school teacher and now Aristotle's lover.
I've made it sound like an Indian love triangle, but much like Smoke Signals, Fancydancing uses an established genre as an excuse to explore themes like death, memory, and seductive pull of assimilation. Both Seymour and Aristotle have "gone to more funerals than I can remember," mourning friends and loved ones since they were little boys. And yet Seymour hasn't been back to the reservation in five years and doesn't think he has to justify the depth of his Indianess either as an artist or in his lifestyle. Aristotle burns with resentment over not just what he feels is Seymour's cultural betrayal but that his not needing the reservation highlights Aristotle's feelings of dependence and worthlessness. The film's soundtrack captures this struggle with quiet poignancy by using a set of ersatz "Indian chants" with popular English expressions as lyrics.
Like Piñero, another film about a poet and tension between old friends and ethnic identities, the narrative of Fancydancing dips and twirls with improvisation. Scenes told out of order are interspersed with quotes from Seymour's poetry and the main characters doing ritual dances in full Indian dress. It's like an Atom Egoyan film that's been bopped on the head.
Alexie has grown significantly as an artist since writing The Business of Fancydancing almost a decade ago (also around the time I started reading him) as evidenced by the remarkable maturity in this directorial debut. The direction at first seems too flashy by half and yet is surprisingly quiet. He both stays out of his actor's way and doesn't pander to a short attention span-afflicted audience, lengthening scenes uncomfortably and letting the characters develop in the silences. It's a wise decision, helped in no small part by Evan Adams, well-intentioned but quietly cruel as Seymour, and total metamorphosis away from the earnest Thomas Builds-the-Fire he played in Smoke Signals.
In his lesser moments, Sherman Alexie yells his ideas rather than speaks them and the shouting matches between Seymour and Aristotle are overblown and sloppy. Gene Tagaban does what he can with Aristotle, but a character barely emerges from all the speechifying. And yet for the most part, The Business of Fancydancing is a moving, beautiful film, with Alexie assuredly as the helm and us grateful for it.
The DVD includes a commentary track from Alexie and a plethora of deleted scenes.
Fancydancing? Looks like tap.
Run time: 103 mins
In Theaters: Monday 14th January 2002
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 17 Rotten: 13
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Sherman Alexie
Producer: Larry Estes, Scott M. Rosenfelt
Screenwriter: Sherman Alexie
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