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New film 'Frybread Face and Me' tells a coming of age 'dramedy' amidst stunning landscapes and plenty of humor

Kier Tallman as Benny and Charley Hogan and Dawn in Frybread Face and Me
Provided by ARRAY films
Kier Tallman as Benny and Charley Hogan and Dawn in Frybread Face and Me

A new film by Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo filmmaker Billy Luther is a coming of age dramedy that explores gender identity and family on the reservation.

Set in 1990, Billy Luther's film Frybread Face and Me's 12-year-old protagonist Benny (Kier Tallman) is a die-hard Fleetwood Mac fan who finds himself devastated when he learns he's going to spend his summer on his grandmother's sheep farm on the Navajo Nation reservation. That means he won't be able to attend their concert. His father proclaims "that's the devil's music…Stevie Nicks is a witch."

Benny is crushed to be away from his familiar urban surroundings and in a place where electricity and running water are scarce. Despite that, he and his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), nicknamed ‘Frybread Face,’ form a bond over the months they spend with their grandmother.

"She's traditional. She's interested in his life back home in the city and he's interested in her and what she does on the rez," Luther said. "So it's a really kind of combination of a buddy movie, but also this kind of look into family and identity…. the aunties and uncles… I think that everyone can see the parallels in their lives."

The film also touches on the issue of gender identity. Benny wears skirts, plays with dolls and declares to his uncle when asked if he is a cowboy or a cowgirl, "I'm just Benny"

Luther dove into his own memories and experiences to create Benny. He had to be vulnerable in sharing his own experiences growing up.

"I think it was, like, Western culture that kind of brought that mindset of not being able to or not having that ability to kind of come out and be gay," Luther said. "I think that has to do with years and years of Catholicism boarding school and all kinds of influences of the Western world."

Luther was raised around aunts and grandmas and said he felt safe being a gay man around these family members.

"There was no judgment," Luther said.

The friendship and bond between the two adolescents in this film unfolds over the course of 82 minutes and is dotted with a cast of characters like aunt Lucy and Dawn and Benny's grandmother, played by renowned Navajo weaver Sarah H. Natani. Dawn teaches Benny Navajo, doles out family gossip and schools him in traditions.

Making the film was a dream come true for Luther who grew up in towns off the reservation and along Route 66. He remembers fondly watching The Golden Girls, The Last Picture Show and On Golden Pond on a tv set and VCR that was dragged along through every move his family would make. But, Native representation on the screen was rare, he remembers.

Having an all Native cast and a Native crew to recreate the set and the props was a dream. The film was shot in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. The film was in production during the time when COVID-19 was at its peak on the Navajo Nation reservation, so they found a place outside of Santa Fe that represented the landscape well.

“We could point the camera in all directions and just get this great view with no power lines in sight. So it was special," Luther said.

The film debuted at South by Southwest earlier this year, and was executive produced by Taika Waititi, one of the co-creators of Reservation Dogs. It was picked up for distribution by Ava DuVernay's company ARRAY. It was produced by Chad Burris, who produced award-winning films including Goodnight Irene, Four Sheets to the Wind, and Barking Water by Sterlin Harjo. He is the founder of Indian Group of Entertainment Companies.

Billy Luther wrote and directed the film. Cinematography was done by Peter Simonite.

The film has a run in Oklahoma starting on Friday, which is Native American Heritage Day.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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