November 24, 2023
Review: 'Frybread Face and Me' Recalls a Summer Coming of Age
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 2 MIN.
When 11-year-old Benny (Keir Tallman) is sent from San Diego to Arizona to spend a summer with relatives, he's hardly keen on the idea. He had planned to see Fleetwood Mac; now he finds himself following his impatient, homophobic-slur-hurling Uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmaier) around the family farm deep in the desert, fixing fences and keeping tabs on sheep.
There are bright spots, such as Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), a free spirit and, supposedly, a lesbian. (It's Lucy who, with a complete lack of surprise or judgment, helps Benny try on cosmetics.) Benny's gentle grandmother (Sarah H. Latani), who speaks only in Navajo, is a calming presence, demonstrating the art of rug weaving and bolstering the spirits of her descendants. Then there's his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), whom other relatives disparage as "Frybread Face" because, supposedly, she is "greasy."
Other relations drift in and out; the picture features a "baby's first laugh" ceremony, among other charming interludes. But the main tension arises between Marvin and Benny, with Marvin constantly putting down Benny's habit of re-enacting soap opera plots with his action figures ("They look like dolls to me") and dismissing him as not masculine enough. There are shades of "The Power of the Dog" here as the two eventually reach an uneasy detente, but there's never an explicit affirmation of anyone's sexuality.
Writer-director Billy Luther ("Muss Navajo") has said that the 1990s-set film is "my story," and it feels autobiographical in its contradictions, ambiguities, and various unresolved threads. Luther's script sparkles with clever dialogue and rich characterizations, finding resonant symbolism in details as tiny as a mangled fork; his direction shows good instincts, and the cast are spirited. This is a film that points the way toward greater things to come, but it also feels like a warm family memory (despite being laced with some painful moments).
"Frybread Face and Me" opens in limited theatrical release and streams on Netflix Nov. 24.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.