Frybread Face and Me is an authentic portrayal of Native American life in the twenty-first century, combining humor and family drama with brutal honesty about an often overlooked culture.
It is possible to feel a disconnect with one’s own culture of origin. In this ever-linked modern world, tradition is all but dead and every culture seems to be merging together. It seems like old customs may not even be applicable anymore. This is where Frybread Face and Me comes in. The debut feature film of director Billy Luther, it both discusses the role of culture in one’s upbringing and displays a marginalized culture in a modern setting. Producer Taika Waititi continues to use his clout and funds for good in amplifying native voices, and Frybread Face and Me is a solid case study on why these voices should be amplified. In observation of Native American Heritage Month, it feels appropriate to discuss a move all about Native American heritage and connecting with a part of yourself you never knew was important, but always lingered as a presence in your life.
Frybread Face and Me is about a boy named Benny (Keir Tallman) who was not raised Navajo, but is sent to the Navajo reservation in Arizona to rediscover his own culture. While on the ranch, he is expected to farm sheep and do chores like anyone else. At first, he despises it, missing his American household and convenience of first world life. As the summer goes on, he learns to accept the farm life and even has some fun with it. His cousin Dawn, AKA Frybread Face (Charley Hogan) serves as both his cultural mentor and playmate, getting them into trouble while Benny also learns what he missed out on in his youth.
Benny did not grow up on the reservation, and speaks only English when his relatives communicate to him in Navajo. He claims to understand the language, but never quite has a grasp on it. What inspires him to learn more are the generosity of his family and Dawn’s openness to teach him about the world. This is what cultural education should be about. Benny only learns once he is willing to open up, and in asking questions, Dawn provides him with the answers through experience rather than a dry lecture. The strong bond between the two carries the film and captures the wonder and excitement of summer break. Showing the movie through a child’s perspective is more effective than an adult’s because Benny is still in his wonder years. His curiosity and openness to the world have not dwindled yet, so he can still adopt the culture and take part of it with him as he grows up.
Frybread Face and Me shows its strength in its portrayal of everyday Navajo life, which is a surprising rarity in many Native American-centric films. Work at the farm is shown front and center as the family on the reservation is expected to help out. Much of Benny’s cultural education comes from being a hand on this farm, and he is expected to give as much effort into his job as anyone else. Benny’s grandmother (Sarah H. Natani) weaves a blanket in a sacred ritual she has learned from her own ancestors.
While this would be an attempt to weave mysticism or caricaturize the culture, it is treated with respect and admiration for the culture, seen as a link to Benny’s own past. The hardships of sheep farming and life in an isolated desert town are on full display and demonstrate how hard these people still have it today. Benny’s androgynous appearance highlights his conflicted identity and his feelings of being trapped between worlds.
As a debut feature, Frybread Face and Me is honest and sympathetic in its portrayal of Navajo culture and a best foot forward for indigenous representation. Even within the indigenous tribes of the United States, the Native American experience is not uniform, and this movie shows that. Some who grew up in the city may feel a disconnect when they visit a reservation, but the reservation is always welcoming to those who visit with an open mind. Heritage is a part of ourselves, and reconnecting with a lost heritage can help us grasp who we are as people and make sense of our place in an uncertain world. This is a movie with a specific portrayal of a specific culture with themes to transcend said culture, where people of all backgrounds can find something for them.
Frybread Face and Me will debut on Netflix and in select US theaters on Friday, November 24, 2023.