Excited for his parents’ promise to take him to Fleetwood Mac in San Diego, Benny (Keir Tallman) can’t help feeling betrayed when his father announces he’ll be spending the summer at his grandmother’s (Sarah H. Natani) home on the Navajo reservation in Arizona instead. It’s been years since his mother (Morningstar Angeline) last took him to visit, and he wishes it could have been longer. Benny is an ’80s city kid. He listens to rock music, uses his action figures to reenact soap opera drama, and dances in his mother’s cowboy hat. Herding sheep and building fences doesn’t interest him––especially since he doesn’t know Navajo and Grandma refuses to learn English.
We’ve all experienced a summer where plans change sans notice or explanation. At that age we just had to scowl and accept our fate––there were no money or means to escape it. Going along doesn’t mean having fun, though. Whether via self-sabotage or actual boredom, we do the bare minimum to seem useful even if we’re not. And for some of us that’s all it was: a forgettable couple of months with which to harbor resentment. For others, however, it might have also been an awakening. Maybe the stars aligned to ensure you were just the right age to learn something from your elders about your heritage, your family, perhaps yourself.
Billy Luther presents Frybread Face and Me as a look back, an older Benny reminiscing about the days that would ultimately alter his life. Not because anything crazy happens. Precisely the opposite. While his uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier) chastises him for being too sensitive and his cousin Dawn, aka Fryface (Charley Hogan), matter-of-factly judges him an outsider unworthy of Grandma’s house (a place that’s become a sanctuary for her), Benny is unwittingly finding himself in the spaces between. Because no matter how easy it might seem to ridicule him, he isn’t the type to back down. Whether insulting Dawn or stabbing Marvin with a spoon, Benny is fearless.
He’s also a snot––a trait that apparently runs in the family, considering Marvin’s defensiveness and Dawn’s entitlement. That Benny can sometimes reach them both is a testament to his unwavering mettle even when tragedy strikes. He’s given an outlet here in the desert to be himself without the threat of what his father might do or say. Marvin might be a bully, but he isn’t abusive. And Dawn might judge him for ignoring his culture, but she understands that his lack of knowledge wasn’t necessarily his fault. With the help of Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges) to lighten the mood and empower his individuality wearing lipstick and a woman’s hat, Benny also becomes invincible.
The film feels like an old ’80s coming-of-age tale of childish antics and rapid maturity. Benny’s adventure might be kept on the reservation, but it’s not without a rodeo, a preteen joyride in Marvin’s truck, or nightly viewings of Starman. And because an accident soon leaves his uncle incapacitated, Benny might even get more done by teaching himself how to build a sheep fence than if he was constantly being mocked in the process. There arrives a level of freedom for him to befriend Dawn, watch Grandma weave wool rugs, and learn more about who he is than he had in all his previous years combined. This truth isn’t a slight on his mother, though. It’s more a symptom of the moment.
Because while Benny is still young enough to dream, it’s not lost on us that those around him have relinquished that desire. Ann is stuck in a difficult marriage far away from home. Lucy wants to go to beauty school but can barely afford to leave the reservation on what little she makes from selling plastic jewelry. And Marvin is trapped by duty in a world that’s given him little in return. With everyone gone or leaving and his brother Vincent (Dawn’s father) out of the picture, the family’s traditions of bull-riding and sheep-herding are left to him whether he likes it or not. Perhaps that’s why he’s so hard on Benny for being disinterested in both: he’s jealous.
Luther therefore deals with some heavy-ish subject matter throughout without shining too bright a light on it. The decision might render the whole shallower than you’d like, but it also lets everything play from Benny’s point of view rather than ours. This helps provide the onscreen events a cute, nostalgic sheen as if the character’s grown-up narrator remembers things through his childhood’s eyes. That perspective inevitably cuts into Marvin’s mean streak, making him more curmudgeon than villain, while heightening Dawn’s sage-like persona bridging together Benny’s Navajo and American halves. It’s as if she’s as old as their grandmother. Despite still being a child, the adults view her as if her presence predates their own.
The film is playing with familiar tropes along a formulaic path, but it’s simply too endearing to dismiss outright. Tallman and Hogan are still kids, and their performances are inconsistent as a result, but they bring an electricity to roles that ultimately feel more natural than not. And the adults being so quick to argue and show resentment while proving even quicker to let it melt away when something heartfelt or joyous occurs supplies that leading duo the room to be confrontational and rebellious when necessary themselves. This is a space saddled by hardship and regrets––enough to facilitate perspective and perhaps some lessons so the next generation can learn from the past’s mistakes.
Frybread Face and Me premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.