There are a lot of films based on personal experience at this year’s SXSW, and Billy Luther’s narrative feature debut Frybread Face and Me is one of the few that actually makes you wish it could go on longer. Using his authentic experience as a rough map rather than a beat sheet, Luther hits on something very special here, exploring universal themes of childhood and family in ways that transcend the specificity of its setting. Taika Waititi’s involvement as executive producer is understandable, not because it reflects his recent success in bringing a more subversively silly strain of comedy to Marvel movies but because, in its lovely, understated it way, it has all the simple warmth and heart of the New Zealander’s earlier works.
Similarly, production company World of Wonder, the creators of RuPaul’s Drag Race, also helped shepherd this story to the screen, but this not to suggest that Frybread Face and Me is preaching to the LGBTQ+ choir and destined for that audience alone. Rather, it shares that long-running show’s compassion and its curiosity about the things that make us we who really are. In Luther’s film, sexuality is rumored, joked, suggested and teased about, but no human behavior is explained or labeled because, for its young protagonist, that doesn’t really matter yet.
The year is 1990, and our hero is an 11-year-old boy from San Diego called Benny (Kier Tallman), who is introduced by Luther in a Wonder Years-style voice-over that interrupts at various intervals, usually when you’ve forgotten about it. Benny is obsessed with Fleetwood Mac and, with his mother’s blessing, dresses up as Stevie Nicks when his father’s not around, which is most of the time. Benny has already learned to hide his interests in plain sight, using action figures as dolls to re-enact tempestuous scenes from his favorite TV soap operas. Benny is completely disconnected from his indigenous roots, but all that changes when he is sent to “the res” — his maternal grandmother Lorraine’s sheep farm in Arizona — for the summer.
Grandmother Lorraine doesn’t speak any English, and never will, but Benny accepts this as the new norm, even when his cousin Frybread Face (Charley Hogan) arrives after being dumped there too. Frybread Face speaks English perfectly well, but for a while she feigns ignorance, leaving Benny to fend for himself. Slowly, though, and after finding out that Benny has a season pass to Sea World and has actually met Shamu the orca — more than once — she starts to thaw, and Benny gets closer to his family and their ways: his beautiful, rebellious Aunt Lucy, his macho, cantankerous Uncle Marvin, and Frybread Face herself, aka Dawn, whose father’s whereabouts is a delicate subject. This explodes when Marvin reveals the real reason Benny is there on the res: his parents are divorcing.
As a mood piece, it perhaps most resembles Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, in that it evokes the past with the scrappiness of memory and, more importantly, doesn’t lean too heavily on period references to set the scene: Pee-wee’s Playhouse is in its last season on TV, Uncle Marvin has a dog called Reba McEntire, and Dawn is obsessed with Jeff Bridges in Starman. More impressively, Uncle Marvin’s hidden copy of Playboy (cover line: “MADONNA NUDE”) doesn’t immediately jump out as set dressing. In the same way, Luther’s film doesn’t lecture about the importance of cultural heritage (we hear, for example, that Grandmother Lorraine may be the last of the family’s bloodline to herd sheep). Instead, Luther invites his audience to ponder on the inevitable dissipation of families and their traditions in the same bittersweet, non-judgmental way that a completely mainstream studio film like, say, Barry Levinson’s Avalon did.
Like that film, Frybread Face and Me features a guileless and charismatic young male in the lead, the “me” of the title, but the standout here has to be the fantastic Hogan, whose story perhaps this really is. Benny is narrating, so we can assume he’s fine, but where is Dawn now? How did things turn out for her? It’s a loose end, a question mark, and an accurate representation of the way the things we might have taken for granted can take on new significance in later life.
Title: Frybread Face and Me
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Spotlight
Director: Billy Luther
Screenwriter: Billy Luther
Cast: Kier Tallman, Charley Hogan, Martin Sensmeier
Running time: 1 hr 23 min
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.