When 11-year-old Benny is sent to his grandmother’s sheep ranch in Arizona for the summer, the greatest tragedy in his mind is that he’s missing a Fleetwood Mac concert back in San Diego. Who can blame him? But the time he spends on the airy plains of the Navajo reservation, delicately depicted in the new film Frybread Face and Me, becomes a formative tether to his native culture and a subtle turning point in his coming of age.
“This is my story, but the lines are blurred,” writer-director Billy Luther tells Them. “It’s a memory of a moment in time.”
The sense that this is a summer that Benny (Keir Tallman) will always remember pervades the movie. Even Benny and his no-nonsense cousin, known as Frybread Face (Charley Hogan), mostly wander aimlessly and talk about nothing at all, their exchanges mean everything to them, filled with moments of quiet significance.
Benny’s grandmother Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani) speaks only Navajo, a language barrier that Frybread Face occasionally broaches for Benny, who can only communicate in English. The kids are joined under the arid sun by their uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier), a gruff rancher and rodeo rider, and their aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), who sells handmade jewelry and lets the kids play with her makeup. Benny’s encounters with these masculine and feminine influences form a sort of canvas for a nascent queerness, sketched by Luther with a loose and loving hand.
“Everybody has experienced going away, maybe to summer camp or to your grandmother’s house, and feeling some sort of isolation and wanting to go home again,” says Luther, who is making his feature debut with Frybread Face after working as a writer and director on the AMC series Dark Winds.
Ahead of the movie’s November 24 release on Netflix, Luther talked to Them about how connecting to his roots informed his own sense of identity, and the Navajo concept of hózhó, which communicates the idea of living in harmony.