“Frybread Face and Me” is a sweet coming-of-age film that’s imperfect all around. Inspired by writer-director Billy Luther‘s childhood, this deeply personal project has its fair share of stumbles, but it manages to stay above water with a charming Native American cast and a story that amplifies Indigenous voices through cinema.
Set in the early 1990s, the film tells the story of eleven-year-old Benny (Keir Tallman), a boy who lives in San Diego with his mom and dad. On the brink of divorce, Benny’s parents put him on a bus to the reservation in Arizona so he can spend the summer with his Grandma Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani), free-spirited Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), tough Uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier), and his pudgy tomboy cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), whom he has never met. Benny’s days are spent living, playing, and sometimes working on the family’s sheep ranch, but he is instantly intimidated by Dawn (who goes by the nickname Frybread Face). She’s sassy and authoritative, which may be just the type of companion Benny needs to make it through the summer.
There isn’t a whole lot of plot here, just a series of recollections about the summer and scenes of kids being kids. Much of the story is told from Benny’s point of view, which means most of the adults are mean or dismissive except for grandma, who desperately clings to Navajo traditions, and Aunt Lucy, who just wants to leave her past behind. There are character quirks that are obviously highly personal, like the fact that Benny plays with dolls and listens to Fleetwood Mac. It’s an eye-opener of a summer for him in more ways than one.
The film’s biggest problem is that the humor simply doesn’t work, and almost every attempt at comedy lands with a thud. This isn’t supposed to be a traditional comedy of course, but the overreaching jokes feel desperate and universally unfunny. It’s not overly mean-spirited, but it is sad how Dawn has been saddled with a very unflattering nickname, and many barbs are made at her expense.
The most interesting points raised by the movie are all about Native American customs and traditions that are being lost at a greater rate with every new generation. Grandma still crafts rugs by hand and refuses to learn English, and there’s a glimmer of hope in the idea of finding purpose through your heritage (Dawn speaks Navajo and Benny is fascinated by the artistry of weaving). It’s something many struggle with in their own family, and Luther’s script lends an authenticity that’s earnest and relatable.
It’s the heartfelt sentiment behind “Frybread Face and Me” that makes it feel special.
By: Louisa Moore