Eleven-year-old Benny Lovell (Keir Tallman) is Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo, which tends to make him stand out from the crowd in San Diego where he lives with his mother. His interests don’t reflect his cultural heritage, however: he’s into skateboarding, Fleetwood Mac (he likes to dress up as Stevie Nicks), and Pee Wee Herman, and he loves creating dramas for his (white) action figures, which other members of his family refer to as “dolls.” So he’s less than enthralled when his father, making a rare appearance in Benny’s life, announces that Benny is going to spend the summer with his grandmother. The other grandmother, who lives on the Navajo reservation. And he’s leaving tomorrow.
It’s that kind of a family, so while Benny is upset about missing a Fleetwood Mac concert (for which he’s been saving up), he dutifully packs his bag and gets on the bus for the 11-hour journey. Upon arrival in Winslow, he immediately asks when he can catch the next bus back to San Diego. Of course that doesn’t happen: Instead, his sexy aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), who has always been cited to him as a bad example, drives him to his grandmother’s trailer on the Navajo Nation, and says she’ll be back “a little later.”
As far as Benny is concerned, he’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, in yet another place where he doesn’t fit in, this time with a grandmother (Sarah Natani) who loves him but doesn’t speak English. He’s put to work right away by his surly uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier), who doesn’t think much of this city kid and his long hair (at dinner, he asks Benny “Are you a cowgirl or a cowboy?” then how many girlfriends he has), and it doesn’t help that Benny knows nothing about the kind of work that needs to be done on a ranch. Fortunately, another young person soon arrives: his 10-year-old cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), nicknamed “Frybread Face,” who’s unceremoniously dropped off by her mother clutching a patched-together doll and a garbage bag of her clothes.
Billy Luther’s Frybread Face and Me offers an unsentimental view of Native American life, with the film spending most of its running time on the Navajo reservation. Grandma Lorraine is clearly the family’s pillar of strength, providing a home for the offspring of adults too busy with their own problems to take proper care of their children, and introducing the young people to their own culture. She’s a traditional weaver (as is Natani in real life), using the wool of the sheep raised on her property, and sets an example of calm kindness in a family where consideration for the feeling of others is seldom a primary consideration.
Dawn (whom I’m going to call “Fry” from now on, since the full nickname seems overly cruel) also has more going on than is evident upon first meeting. She’s multilingual, for one thing, and knows her heritage intimately, while with Benny it’s more of a few odd facts he happens to have picked up. When Fry learns Benny is from San Diego, she dubs him “Shamu” after the Sea World whale (the story takes place in 1990, when staged shows featuring orcas were a regular attraction). Unlike Benny, Fry is unafraid of Marvin, and comes to Benny’s defense when Marvin’s meanness becomes too much.
The slow pace of Frybread Face and Me matches that of life on the reservation. Not a lot happens in terms of events, but Benny experiences huge internal changes as he comes to learn there there is more than one way to live in the world and that he belongs to something much bigger than he ever realized. The film’s effect is cumulative, the way the sparse Arizona landscape grows on you, and the film is faithful to the approach Benny attributes to his grandmother in his opening narration (voiced by Luther): “In Navajo storytelling, symbols mean more than facts, and time means nothing at all.” | Sarah Boslaugh
Frybread Face and Me is being released in select theatres and will be available for streaming on Netflix beginning Nov. 24.