Billy Luther’s richly evocative 1990-set narrative feature debut, Frybread Face and Me, follows 11-year-old Benny (Keir Tallman) whose dreams of catching his favourite band, Fleetwood Mac, live in his hometown of San Diego are crushed when he’s abruptly sent away for the summer by his divorcing parents to stay with his grandma Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani) on the Navajo Nation. Benny doesn’t speak Navajo and his grandmother doesn’t speak English, but although they can’t communicate directly with one another there’s a strong and deeply touching bond between them.
Also living there and taking care of the sheep is Benny’s stern, rodeo riding uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier) who makes fun of the boy for wearing his mother’s hat and playing with action figures, encouraging him to put them down and become a “real man” like him. Things take an unexpected turn when Benny’s cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), who everyone calls Frybread Face, is also dropped off to stay with Lorraine with nothing but a garbage bag full of clothes, and her beloved doll (with a Cabbage Patch head that continually falls off and mismatched handmade body stitched by her mother). The doll is named Jeff Bridges out of love for Starman—the only movie they have on VHS, and many months overdue at the video store—which she shares her passion for with Benny, with multiple viewings over the summer.
Narrated by a grownup Benny (voiced by Luther) reflecting back, the film is infused with an achingly nostalgic, nothing-lasts-forever tone that makes every moment in the film feel meaningful and all too fleeting, though to Benny and Dawn the summer feels endless. The friendship that develops between the cousins is tenderly crafted by Luther and beautifully acted by the young leads who give natural, delicate performances that are both affecting and often hilarious.
Most of the film takes place in and around grandma Lorraine’s home on the rez, with Peter Simonite’s cinematography immersing us in the environment, with some brief but breathtaking sweeping shots conveying the magnificence of the land. Some of the most moving scenes in the film focus on Lorraine passing on Navajo traditions to Benny, talking to him about the symbolism and significance of weaving as she makes rugs to sell at a store in town, and washing his hair as she encourages him not to cut it, advising him that “long hair is full of knowledge”. Benny becomes a significant part of one of the traditions himself when he makes his baby cousin laugh for the first time, an event that is celebrated by the whole family.
With a background in documentary filmmaking, including 2007’s Miss Navajo, Luther brings those skills into the scenes with Sarah H. Natani as Lorraine, allowing the actress (in an enchanting screen debut) to improvise. In contrast to his relationship with his abrasive uncle Marvin, Benny is in awe of his warm and free-spirited aunt Lucy (a captivating Kahara Hodges) who Dawn quickly informs him is a lesbian. Like a Navajo auntie Mame, Lucy’s essence embodies being your authentic self and making the most out of life. Following its international premiere at TIFF, this film deserves to be seen widely and having producers like World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi as executive producer, should help it to reach its audience.
By James Kleinmann
Billy Luther’s Frybread Face and Me received its international premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 11th. It will screen again on Thursday, September 14th. TIFF 2023 continues until Sunday, September 17th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now at tiff.net.
Find more queer titles at TIFF 2023 in our LGBTQ+ highlights article.