A scene from 'The Business of Fancydancing'
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***1/2 stars
103 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, August 30, 2002 (SF)

Written & directed by Sherman Alexie

Starring Evan Adams, Gene Tagaban, Michelle St. John, Swil Kanim, Rebecca Carrol

This film received an honorable mention on the Best of 2002 list.


With its incredibly personal stories and its digital video (and sometimes even home video) style, this picture should come across well enough on TV to feel like a great rental discovery.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 07.08.2003

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Gay American Indian poet's identity, integrity at issue in extraordinary 'The Business of Fancydancing'

By Rob Blackwelder

"The Business of Fancydancing" is a distinctively empathetic drama about an egotistical, intellectual, gay American Indian poet returning to his reservation 16 years after leaving to make his fortune by publicly exploiting the heritage he privately shuns.

The funeral of a childhood friend is the catalyst for this trip that Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) doesn't want to make, knowing he'll find harsh criticism from former buddies and members of the tribe he left behind as fast as he could after graduating high school.

A highly personal meditation on the choices we make that define our identity, this film is the work of independent Indian filmmaker Sherman Alexie (writer of "Smoke Signals"), who does an extraordinary job of bringing to life the fear, frustration and bitterness of his cast of characters, as well as the blood ties and kinship that bind them together in spite of it all.

Seymour -- who has never looked back except to write about life on "the rez" in books of poetry that have made him popular among the white literary intelligentsia -- feels he has escaped a life of voluntary imprisonment by succeeding on the outside. And while he'd never admit to feeling trapped between two worlds, he masks his social unease with a conspicuous sense of superiority when it comes time to face the old friends whose lives he's often usurped for his poetry.

It's extraordinary how Alexie and Adams create a character who is easy to identify with despite being a smug and selfish upstart (not to mention a minority within a minority). Adams' performance quietly betrays Seymour's compound insecurities, even as his wears his charming cockiness on his sleeve. He also does a fantastic job of portraying the character at three different ages, from his enthusiastic, experimental youth ("I've had sex with one Indian woman, 112 white boys and two black men," he laughs, "but I've never slept with an Indian man.") through to his now solemn adult cynicism.

But just as importantly, the film identifies with the mixed feelings of those people Seymour abandoned in his resolute determination to shake off the shackles of his ancestry while capitalizing on it at the same time.

Angry Aristotle (Gene Tagaban) left for college with Seymour all those years ago and double-majored in math and chemistry, but felt so ostracized in the white world that he returned to the reservation and succumbed to animosity and drink. Alexie shows us Seymour through Aristotle's eyes as a pathetic token of his tribe, a "little public relations warrior" who "puts on (his) little beads and feathers for all these white people."

Agnes (Michelle St. John), who was Seymour's college girlfriend before he came out of the closet, is half Indian and half Jewish. She understood her lover's internal chaos, but while he was running away from his past, she moved toward it, becoming a teacher on his reservation. She's his only defender at the funeral, reminding bitter mourners that "he's out there telling everybody we're still here." But at the same time she reprimands Seymour when he insists he's succeeded on his own, saying, "These Indians you write about are giving you help every damn day," she reminds him.

In an array of home videos we also meet misanthropic but comical Mouse (Swil Kanim), whose overdose death has brought them all together again. His observations about Seymour are often the simplest and most enlightening. "Seymour never writes about laughter," Mouse states in one videotape missive in which he grouses about the way his friend portrays rez life.

None of these performances shies away from character flaws and all of them are heartfelt, honest, unaffected, and uniquely human.

Alexie also gives us a glimpse into Seymour's poetry, which is vivid, full of soul and deeply moving, while being somewhat theatrical and pretentious at the same time. It's a deft balance the writer-director strikes, demonstrating just how deeply he probed his characters' psyches in the creative process.

The film's style is sometimes strongly symbolic, with simple, dream-like interludes of individual characters performing ceremonial dances in complete blackness, and episodes of Seymour reading his first-person poetry aloud as he is replaced in-camera by the character from whom he stole the story.

If there's one problem with "The Business of Fancydancing" that prevents it from being completely absorbing, it's the fact that the movie was shot on low-end digital video. Sometimes the image quality is so bad it takes you right out of the story -- especially when Alexie composes what might otherwise be gorgeous shots, like a forest path through aspen trees or a ceremonial dance that transitions into a strobe-lit night club scene symbolizing Seymour's continuing incongruity with the world he's chosen to inhabit.

But as hard as it may be at times, it's worth looking past the film's technical shortcomings to find is complex and textured spirit.


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