One of the standouts at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, Billy Luther’s richly evocative 1990-set narrative feature debut Frybread Face and Me, was recently acquired by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing and will open in select theaters and launch on Netflix on Friday, November 24th. The comedy drama follows 11-year-old Benny (Keir Tallman) as he is 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 on the rez 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. 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. Read our full ★★★★★ review of the film from TIFF.
Native American filmmaker Billy Luther of the Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo tribes began his career in documentaries, with his first feature, Miss Navajo, making its world premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival before going on to air nationally on PBS later that year. His next feature as director, Grab—narrated by Parker Posey—premiered at Sundance in 2011. The filmmaker received a nomination for Best Documentary Short at the International Documentary Association Awards for Red Lake in 2016. He went on to launch the web series alter-NATIVE for PBS’ IndieLens StoryCast and, most recently, he was a staff writer and director on the award-winning AMC series Dark Winds.
Following the international premiere of Frybread Face and Me at TIFF, which just won Best Narrative Feature at the Urbanworld Film Festival, Billy Luther spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about embracing the film’s autobiographical elements, why he didn’t want to make Benny an explicitly queer character, how meaninful it was for him to assemble an all-Indigenous lead cast, and why he wishes RuPaul’s Drag Race had been around when he was growing up.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What initially drew you to filmmaking as a storytelling form with your first documentary Miss Navajo?
“My mom was Miss Navajo in the 1960s and that time of her life was incredible. She left the rez and traveled around as a kind of ambassador for the Navajo Nation. She met Robert Kennedy and was on the Johnny Carson show. I wanted to make a film about that, so I started diving into research and writing a script. I spoke with other Miss Navajos over the past 50 years and they had so many fascinating stories that I knew that I needed to let these women speak for themselves. The subject really drew me in because it’s a beauty pageant where Navajo women wear high heels, but they also slaughter sheep! It’s definitely a unique pageant. So that’s how I became a documentary filmmaker.”
“I like telling contemporary stories about our community that aren’t necessarily like a PBS documentary that hits you on the head, but something that has some history in it and is fun too. I love to work on films that are entertaining and offer a unique perspective into our community.”
That’s certainly something that you’ve achieved with Frybread Face and Me, which I found deeply moving but it also made me howl with laughter at times too. As the film opens, I was struck by the detailed production design of Benny’s bedroom, taking in all the posters, while we see Pee-wee Herman playing on TV. Then on the reservation, the only movie that Benny and Frybread have to watch on VHS is Star Man. Were those things that were personally meaningful to you?
“Those little details really help evoke childhood. Those were the things that I watched when I was a kid. When I was with my grandmother, we’d watch the same film over and over again on VHS. These are little things that might not feel that significant when you’re younger, but they really resonate and make a big impact as you grow up. It was a conscious decision when it came to including every one of those details, like the Gorillas in the Mist poster on the back wall for instance. For the character of Benny, his bedroom was a great place to shape his current world before we see him go into a new one on the rez where there’s nothing there that he’s used to. Details like the movies he’s into was something that really added a depth to this character, so I included things that weren’t necessarily in the script. I wanted to pepper the film with little details which help to convey that moment in time, like the kid selling pickles at the rodeo who is wearing a Dukakis t-shirt.”
“For a lot of the set decoration, my production design team went into my parents’ shed and brought what they found onto the set. Everything from coffee mugs to GI Joe dolls. Those were the actual GI Joe dolls that I played with growing up! It was great to have those pieces in the films because it kept reminding me of the story that I’d initially written out on paper. We had Navajo people on the production team, so they understood the grandma’s world. It was really important to have those people on set.”
How close would you say the Benny that we find in the film is to how you were at that age?
“When I wrote it, I was really pushing that this wasn’t my story and that it was Benny’s story. But when it comes down to it, this is my story. I wanted to tell a story that was authentic and also one that could resonate with people outside of my community.”
Is that your voice that we hear as the older Benny’s voice over on the film?
“Yeah, it is. That wasn’t in the original script, but I really wanted to dive deeper into the older Benny looking back and his thoughts about life, without telling the audience too much. Initially, we tried using another person’s voice for the voice over, but it didn’t quite hit. It was about emphasizing certain words that I was saying in a particular way when I was talking about my grandmother. My own grandmother passed away a week before we started filming, so I really needed that emotion in the voice. When you make a film, it’s all about the process of editing and we edited for a year. Some things weren’t hitting, but when we put my VO in there that really hit.”
I love the bond between Benny and his grandmother. How important was it to you that we see her passing on Navajo traditions, like weaving and the significance of not cutting hair? Those are really beautiful scenes in the film.
“That was my relationship with my grandmother. I had no direct verbal communication with her, it was always through my mother, my aunts, or uncles. But I think that’s what made our relationship really special. I would come to the rez with a buzz cut and my aunts and uncles would talk about it, but it was never a judgment with my grandmother. She’d be like, ‘This is what we believe in’. Sarah Natani who plays the grandmother really conveyed that so beautifully. This is her first film, so my background as a documentary filmmaker for the past 15 years really helped me to tell her story.”
“I told my camera crew, ‘I don’t care about her hitting her mark, I just want the camera follow her’. I wanted it to be this organic space that we were in with her that allowed her to tell her story. I asked her to talk about the importance of weaving and she did. A lot of times, I didn’t know what she was saying because I don’t speak fluent Navajo, but I just let her talk and we captured it. When I got it translated, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so perfect’. She was saying so many great things about Navajo culture, Navajo life, and family that we could have included in the film, but we really needed to tie what she was saying into what Benny and Fry were going through, so unfortunately we couldn’t use everything, but it was a big part of the film’s storytelling.”
Did you shoot in the Navajo Nation?
“No, because we filmed during the pandemic and at the time the Navajo Nation was really struggling with Covid. They were closed off to any visitors and no films or commercials could be filmed there. So we found this land near Santa Fe, New Mexico which felt perfect. I didn’t want to film somewhere that didn’t feel like the Navajo rez because the landscape is so specific and it’s a character in the film. Nothing was there, so our art team had to create everything from scratch, like the corral and the hogan, and we brought in the trailer. Every time we went on set, it felt like we were at our grandmothers’ houses. It felt like Sarah as the grandmother really lived there.”
Your two young leads are a delight to watch and so natural on screen. How did you find them?
“Charley Hogan, who plays Fry, was the first person we cast. She sent in her tape and as soon as my producer and I watched it we were like, ‘This is her! This is done.’ This is her first film, but she was such a pro. On the first day, after the first take she came up to me and said, ‘Should I do anything different?’ And I was so impressed by that. I loved what she did in the film. She really understood this character. When it came to finding Keir Tallman to play Benny, our casting director had worked on Reservation Dogs, so she already had her eye on a lot of kids. She sent me a lot to consider, but it was so important to me to find Navajo kids because they all experienced their grandmothers living on the rez. The two leads both live in Phoenix and they totally understood these characters.”
“We had to do our rehearsals on Zoom, which was difficult because that’s not a normal way for actors to work, especially with directors. The week before we started shooting, I wanted them to get to know each other, so we went bowling and to dinner, and did all kinds of things that weren’t work. That helped them to connect and they have such great chemistry together, they really shine on screen. Every time I watch the film their performances blow me away. They’re incredible and bring even more to it than the characters that I’d written on the page.”
What about assembling the rest of the cast? I love that ensemble scene where we see the whole family together.
“Yes, me too, and they’re all Native. The only person who isn’t Navajo is Martin Sensmeier who plays uncle Marvin, who is Alaskan Native. That scene where they’re all in the trailer together, bouncing off each other and teasing each other, was an amazing thing for me to witness. The camera people had set up the lighting and then once I looked in the frame I saw eight Native Americans that I was directing. It really hit me in that moment that this is rare. It was emotional because little did I know that one day I’d be filming eight Natives in one room with a movie I was making.”
“They’re all first-time screen actors, except for Martin and Morningstar Angeline who play’s Benny’s mom. Martin, being the professional he is, really helped shape the younger actors on set. He knew when they were feeling nervous about certain things, like the scene where Benny explodes and becomes emotional. Martin wanted him to be be comfortable and I had to protect him too, because it was an emotional part of the performance. The other actors modeled their roles on their own aunts or uncles. Everyone knew a Marvin, everyone knew a Frybread, and everyone had that special relationship with their grandmothers. It really helped that we were all in a safe environment.”
What did you want to explore with the film in terms of queerness and gender when it comes to Benny’s character, also acknowledging the contrast between colonial concepts and Navajo beliefs about two-spirit individuals?
“In Navajo culture the male and female are balanced, and in the past our gay people were thought of as holy people. Then of course Western ideas of religion changed that. We don’t hit directly on those things in the film. We don’t say, ‘Hey, this kid is gay’, because at 11 you don’t necessarily know yet. So I didn’t want to shape him into a gay or queer character, but it’s there and I think people who watch it will see it as a piece of the puzzle. At home, Benny’s exploring something that’s familiar to him and comfortable, then he’s brought into this world on the rez where if you’re a man you have to be a cowboy and behave in a certain way. That’s how my uncles lived and if you weren’t like that then you’d get teased.”
In contrast to that, Benny has a really accepting adult figure in his warm and free-spirited aunt Lucy doesn’t he?
“Yes, she’s a caring woman who understands that Benny likes things that aren’t necessarily seen as masculine and gives him earrings. Fry needs that care too, in terms of her life and her backstory with her father and the way that she’s been dropped off at her grandmother’s. Aunt Lucy loves these kids and they love her because her world is fascinating. She picks up and leaves and comes and goes. She’s somebody who is accepting and who gives these kids some grounding and confidence.”
What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you?
“Living off the reservation, pop culture has always been a part of my life. In terms of music, George Michael was a huge influence on me when I was growing up, so when he came out that was amazing. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ Even though I kind of always knew it.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race has really changed the culture. I wish that I’d had something like that growing up, but it wasn’t there. I’m happy that there are a lot of kids and young adults out there who do have that now and it’s so entertaining. It’s great that another generation has something like that that’s so front and centre, whereas when we were growing up it had to be hidden. We couldn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m watching this on television’. I’m so fortunate that the producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race, World of Wonder, came on board with this film because they liked the nuances of Benny and they understood that this is a unique story of this young kid. I’m thrilled to have them backing the film.”
Speaking of drag, have you encountered Navajo drag artist Lady Shug?
“I haven’t met Lady Shug, but I know about her because she’s pretty big around the Southwest in terms of her performances. She’s also very knowledgeable about our culture. She’s not going out there and just being shocking or just entertaining, but her performances interweave our culture into drag and it’s amazing to see her do that, along with drag artists like Landa Lakes. I love that our community is embracing that and it’s exciting that there’s so much out there in terms of representation and stories from the rez.”
By James Kleinmann
Frybread Face and Me world premiered at SXSW, received its international premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, and won Best Narrative Feature at the Urbanwolrd Film Festival. ARRAY Releasing will open the film in select theaters and on Netflix on Friday, November 24th, 2023, Native American Heritage Day.