A Sweet Slice of Reservation Life – The Hollywood Reporter

Frybread Face and Me unfolds over one of those strange seasons of youth, in which not much technically happens but everything feels changed afterward, in some small but significant way. Plot-wise, it’s slim: Benny (Keir Tallman) is an 11-year-old from San Diego who’s sent to stay with his grandmother (Sarah H. Natani) on the Navajo reservation for the summer, where he meets and befriends his cousin Dawn, a.k.a. Frybread Face (Charley Hodges). The pair while away the months doing what kids do — playing with dolls, watching Starman on repeat and snooping through their uncle’s stuff in between chores on the family’s sheep ranch — until all of a sudden, it’s time for Benny to return home.

But what Frybread Face and Me lacks in drama, it makes up for in a boundless affection for its characters and an appreciation for the everyday details of their lives. Combined with occasional bits of narration from an older Benny, looking back at the summer of 1990 with the wisdom and wistfulness of distance, Benny and Dawn’s minor adventures yield a sweet, gentle drama that runs deeper than it might appear at first.

Frybread Face and Me

The Bottom Line

A sweet slice of life.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Cast: Keir Tallman, Charley Hogan, Martin Sensmeier, Morningstar Angeline, Kahara Hodges, Sarah H. Natani
Director-screenwriter: Billy Luther

1 hour 22 minutes

Despite an opening voiceover about the importance of symbolism in Navajo storytelling, Frybread Face and Me, written and directed by Billy Luther, mostly takes a light touch with its metaphors. Its events unfold in fairly straightforward fashion as Dawn’s initial wariness of her city-mouse cousin gives way to a sort of protectiveness. Gradually, she schools Benny in the ways of their family — teaching him bits of Navajo language (all the better to communicate with their grandmother, who’s refused to learn English), dishing out morsels of gossip, steering him through traditional rituals and generally instilling in him a sense of pride in and connection to a background that had seemed so unfamiliar to him at first.

Hodges brings a confidence beyond her years to Dawn, and she’s well-matched by Tallman’s observant presence; the dynamic they share will feel well-worn and familiar to anyone who ever had (or was) a bossy friend growing up. Surrounding them are a rotating cast of adult relatives: kindhearted and deeply traditional Grandma; prickly uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier); cool aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges); judgy aunt Sharon and uncle Roger (Nasheen Sleuth and Jeremiah Bitsui, in a brief but funny appearance). Each is drawn vividly enough that it’s slightly disappointing we don’t get to know them better as three-dimension individuals in their own right — beyond whatever model of grownup life they come to represent for the kids.

But then, Frybread Face and Me is committed first and foremost to Benny’s view of the world, such that even the visuals subtly reflect his evolution. When Benny arrives at Grandma’s, what we first see is how plain and empty it looks — a tidy but shabby home surrounded by miles of dirt, standing in sharp contrast to the lively clutter of Benny’s bedroom back in California. But over the course of the film’s 82 minutes, we start noticing more and more of its beauty: the striking shapes of the rocks and cacti dotting the landscape, the rainbow of colorful shirts and skirts at a family celebration, the majestic serenity of the room where Grandmother hand-looms intricate traditional rugs to sell to tourist shops.

We take in, too, the random little details that seemingly exist for no other reason than that life is full of random details — like the Dukakis t-shirt on a guy selling pickles at the rodeo, or Marvin’s brusque explanation that his car has no windshield because “I made it that way.” I don’t know how much of Frybread Face and Me is actually based on personal experience, though interviews with Luther and snippets of old camcorder footage would seem to suggest at least some of it is. Regardless, its attentive gaze has the intimacy of a personal memory.

Throughout, Frybread Face and Me is generous with the space it allows Benny to soak in all these new traditions and personalities and ideas, and to determine for himself what they mean for him. “Are you a cowboy or a cowgirl?” Marvin scoffs upon Benny’s arrival, eyeing the ladies’ hat on his head and the dolls (i.e., action figures) in his hands. “I’m just Benny,” he responds, perplexed. Marvin might see it as his role to shape this kid into a man — but the film itself allows Benny the agency to declare that if being a cowboy or being a man means being like Marvin, “I don’t want to be any of those things.”

What Benny does end up becoming, we never get to learn; even the voiceovers offer little insight into what his life is like as an adult. Frybread Face and Me is less about pointing these children toward any particular future than it is about rooting them in a vibrant past. As Benny prepares to leave near the end of the movie, Dawn finds herself sitting in the kitchen by herself, feeling suddenly abandoned. Luther, touchingly, frames her head so that it’s at the center of a semicircle of family photos. The moment serves as a quiet reminder that wherever Dawn and Benny are, they’re never alone — and that wherever they go next, it matters where they’ve come from.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: Indion Entertainment, REI Co-op Studios
Cast: Keir Tallman, Charley Hogan, Martin Sensmeier, Morningstar Angeline, Kahara Hodges, Sarah H. Natani
Director-screenwriter: Billy Luther
Producer: Chad Burris
Executive producers: Taika Waititi, Bill Way, Elliott Whitton, Charles D. King, Poppy Hanks, Greta Talia Fuentes, Bill Pohlad, Kim Roth, Christa Workman, Tegan Acton, Emma Ruse, Hallee Adelman, Ivy Herman, Paolo Mottola, Joe Crosby, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Martha Gregory, Robinia Riccitiello
Director of photography: Peter Simonite
Production designer: Jonathon “Robot” Long
Wardrobe supervisor: Jesse Dell
Editor: Fred Koschmann
Music: Ryan Beveridge
Casting director: Angelique Midthunder
Sales: CAA

1 hour 22 minutes

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