Unfortunately, a Stevie Nicks–loving 11-year-old boy with long hair and a penchant for playing with dolls in 1990 is bound to encounter some cruel, early homophobia, even though he’s yet to understand his own identity for himself. This is the case for Benny (Keir Tallman), the young Navajo protagonist in Billy Luther’s feature debut, Frybread Face and Me.
The film, which had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11, begins with Benny’s slashed dream of seeing Fleetwood Mac in concert over the summer. Instead, with only a day’s notice, he finds out that he is being shipped off from his home in San Diego to his grandmother’s house in Navajo Nation in rural Arizona. Upon arrival, he is picked up by his elusive Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), his mother’s younger sister, who has a reputation within the family for being reckless and flighty (she is unmarried, childless and rumoured to be a lesbian). At his grandmother’s house, Benny is bullied for being a “cowgirl” by his Uncle Marvin; teased for his haircut, city upbringing and inability to ride a makeshift bull crafted from a steel drum and some rope.
When Benny’s older cousin, Dawn (Charley Hogan), nicknamed Frybread Face, is also dumped at the house by her mother, the two misfits begin to form a bond, spending days together getting into mischief (like going for a joyride when neither of them know how to drive), herding sheep and hanging out with their grandmother (Sarah H. Natani), who doesn’t speak a word of English (luckily, Dawn is able to translate). As Benny spends more time with the women in his family, free of judgment and the trappings of traditional masculinity, he slowly but surely begins to come into himself.
Frybread Face and Me is a charming and incredibly sweet coming-of-age film. It’s about a summer of small, tender moments that help Benny grow more comfortable in his own skin. These moments are where the movie shines most: Grandma Lorraine washing Benny’s shoulder-length locks with care and teaching him about rug weaving; Benny experimenting with makeup for the first time with Aunt Lucy, and dancing with Dawn, both clad in colourful skirts and silk head scarves. We only see a few minutes of Benny’s home life in San Diego, but it is quickly established that between school and butting heads with his father, he isn’t having the easiest time in life, so watching him start to flourish in a more loving environment is particularly heartwarming.
With narration by an adult Benny as he looks back on this one magical summer, Frybread Face and Me is reminiscent of other coming-of-age classics like Stand By Me, Now and Then and The Sandlot. This trope isn’t used very often anymore and it really works here, adding to the nostalgic feel of the entire movie. Unlike in the ’80s and ’90s, there doesn’t seem to be as many movies for tweens these days, especially earnest ones, and I think Luther has made a relatable film with much-needed queer and Indigenous representation that will likely resonate with a younger audience.
The standout performances definitely belong to first-time actors Natani and Hogan. As the titular Frybread Face, Hogan is hilarious, self-assured and charismatic; a commanding presence that I’d love to see again soon. She teaches Benny to be confident and proud of his Navajo heritage, while showing him the ropes around the ranch and, even more importantly, the benevolent alien flick Starman. Natani emanates warmth as Grandma Lorraine, bringing a natural, genuine energy to the film. Despite the language barrier between them, she and Benny develop a loving relationship over the course of the summer, allowing Benny to reconnect with his roots in a new way. While some of the dialogue and other supporting performances feel a little stilted at times, the rest of the main characters feel lived in enough that those flaws can be easily forgiven.
The film is a touching depiction of those endless, sprawling summers as a kid that you’ll always remember—when your newfound freedom from the confines of a classroom and ample spare time leads to self-discovery. And with its beautiful desert backdrop and cinematography that showcases the iconic American Southwest landscape in all its glory, the movie is a lovely experience all around. While perhaps not a perfectly executed film, Frybread Face and Me and its protagonist are still the festival underdogs that are worth rooting for this year.