‘Frybread Face and Me’ Review: A Sweet Coming-of-Age Story Between Cousins on a Navajo Reservation | SXSW 2023
Childhood is a weird time. Hormones are kicking in, rebellious natures are developing, and you are figuring out who you are as a person with every new experience. Billy Luther‘s Frybread Face and Me immerses us in this time as it follows the young Benny (Keir Tallman) who is sent to his Grandma Lorraine’s (Sarah H. Natani) house for the summer in 1990. Living on a sheep ranch, Benny gets in touch with his Native American heritage. Specifically, he gets a look into the life of his Navajo/Diné family members. There he meets his kind and loving grandma, his free-spirited aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), his complicated uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeir), and, most importantly, his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), also known as Frybread Face to the family.
Benny’s story feels deeply personal — this is not your run-of-the-mill bildungsroman. While it has all the elements of a good coming-of-age story, full of wry humor and family drama, Benny’s discovery of his Navajo heritage and the language is something rarely depicted in film. Too often, stories involving Native Americans place them in stereotypes, but Benny’s family embraces their heritage without falling into neat little boxes. The film makes heavy use of the Navajo language, with Benny’s grandmother only speaking Navajo (and defiantly choosing not to learn English). The language, for the film, is another tool to help define this family. Conversations between family members who speak Navajo are translated to us, while conversations between Benny and his grandmother are left untranslated. It highlights Benny’s separation and the severing of his connection to his people.
Initially, the Fleetwood Mac-loving Benny is reluctant, as many kids are, to go spend the summer with some unknown relative rather than staying at home and doing what he wants to do. Benny is an unconventional kid, he likes to play with dolls, he loves Stevie Nicks, and he likes wearing makeup. When he goes to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, it’s a far cry from the familiar city life of San Diego. There, Frybread Face and the rest of his family teaches him about Navajo culture. Fry, on the flip side, has grown up on the rez. When she is abandoned on her grandmother’s doorstep by her mother, her prickly nature melts away after spending time with her cousin and she is comfortable navigating an environment where he feels out of place.
The slow bonding between Fry and Benny and their time spent with their grandmother, who values and preserves Navajo ways, makes Frybread Face and Me a truly heartfelt story. We watch as their grandmother washes their hair the traditional way, teaches Fry how to work the loom, and upholds the traditions that are rapidly dying as people move away to the city. The way Luther takes care in showing both the highlights and the lowlights of Benny’s family turns a culture that might be unfamiliar to many into something that is not only accessible but deeply relatable. You don’t have to be Navajo to understand the cultural rift Benny feels with his grandmother, or the pressure he feels from his uncle. There is an element of oral tradition in the film that should feel familiar to anyone who has ever had a meaningful conversation with a family member.
As Benny peels back the layers of his family, his summer becomes transformative. He is immersed in life on the rez and learning from his family. Tallman’s performance here along with Hogan is particularly exciting as the two young actors play perfectly off of each other as cousins. Hogan’s precocious Fry is funny and strong-willed, shielding her insecurities with a tough exterior. And Tallman’s Benny is softer, shier but not weak or unworthy as some see him. On paper, the film is quite a simple concept, but Luther takes the building blocks of a strong coming-of-age story and builds something that will undoubtedly leave you feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside.
While the film has the star power name of Taika Waititi listed as an executive producer, it’s clear that this is Luther’s story through and through. From the careful casting of Navajo actors — vital not only to representation but when it comes to speaking the language — to its honest look into rez life without any Hollywood spin, Frybread Face and Me isn’t just a joy to watch but spells a bright future for Luther after this narrative feature debut.
Frybread Face and Me premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.