(Check out Chris Reed’s Frybread Face and Me movie review. The movie is in select theaters and Netflix Friday, November 24, 2023. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Frybread Face and Me, from writer/director Billy Luther (Grab), drops on Netflix and in limited theatrical release on November 24—Native American Heritage Day—and the timing works perfectly for the movie’s themes. A coming-of-age story set on a Navajo reservation, the film follows young, San Diego-raised Benny (Keir Tallman) as he struggles to reconnect with his extended family in Arizona after his parents unexpectedly send him there. The year is 1990, and he’d much rather be going to a Fleetwood Mac concert. And who can blame him? Stevie Nicks is the bomb.
Unfortunately, his grandmother (Sarah H. Natani) doesn’t speak English, and his Uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier, The Last Manhunt), who does, is openly hostile, ridiculing him for his city ways and apparent lack of virility (he’s only 11). And though his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan)—nicknamed, unflatteringly, “Frybread Face”—should make an age-appropriate companion after her mother drops her off for the summer, she’s not too keen on Benny, either. At least not at first. Which is too bad, since she, like Marvin, speaks both Navajo and English.
Soon, however, the monotony (to them) of farm life (the family herds sheep) brings the two tweens closer together, aided at times by the natural ebullience of their Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges). Benny learns a little more of the Navajo way, and Dawn warms up to him through her own boredom. Just as everyone grows closer, it’s sadly time for him to head back home.
The adult Benny narrates, looking back fondly on these memories of a time now long gone by. Everything that initially irritated holds special meaning in our present, from the rugs that his grandmother weaves to the rodeo in which Marvin sustains injury. Even Uncle Roger (Jeremiah Bitsui, Drunktown’s Finest)—Marvin’s older brother, no more pleasant than him—brings some unexpected joy, courtesy of his newborn son who laughs his first laugh while in Benny’s arms, prompting an eventual ceremony in honor of the achievement.
There is both happiness and misery in equal measure, some of it related to the mistreatment of indigenous people on American soil, and some of it just the usual family dysfunction of anywhere and everywhere. It’s a bittersweet tale with moments of genuine connection between the characters, as well as sections of real profundity. Young Benny may miss out on the charms of the devil-woman (as some in the film claim Nicks to be), but he gains many deep truths about his heritage in return. Seems like a more than fair trade.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
Netflix; Billy Luther; Frybread Face and Me movie review