There’s usually a negative connotation attached to a broken home, but Billy Luther sees the beauty in the pieces that don’t necessarily fit together forming something unique in “Frybread Face and Me,” set in 1990 where the writer/director recounts the summer he spent on his grandmother’s home on the Diné reservation in Arizona at the age of 11. He isn’t the only one that’s been left there by his parents when not long after he arrives, he is joined by his slightly older cousin Dawn (a standout Charley Hogan), who has been unable to shake the nickname the family gave her a while back as “Frybread” for her cherubic face, ad while both have vague ideas about why they’re there, the parental strife was never intended to be passed down, though it’s easy for both to think they’re unwanted when neither are given more concrete answers. Other than their grandmother Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani), who is content to knit and speak only in Navajo, a language Benny (Keir Tallman), Luther’s onscreen surrogate, can’t quite comprehend, the house is a home to the wounded with the kids’ uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier) already a taciturn rancher in his thirties who resents more mouths to feed and Lucy (Kahara Hodges), a free-spirit who seems the most well-adjusted but seen as a disappointment within the family, with Benny remembering how he was told that’d be the last person he’d want to be like.
Benny starts to form his own ideas about who he wants to be on the res, which in some way fulfills the ostensible reason he’s sent there by his father, but Luther is wise to take interest in what brought everyone there, perhaps a birthright but nonetheless somewhere almost none feel like they belong. Although “Frybread Face and Me” has a voiceover, endearingly in Luther’s own wisened voice with accompanying splices of home videos to assure this all really happened, it is guided by a gentler spirit as it moves between Benny’s perspective and allowing one to see the territory through the eyes of everyone else as he gradually ingratiates himself to Dawn, the most at home on the land without anything to compare it to and initially seeing Benny as encroaching, and cuts through Marvin’s bitterness to learn of a sense of defeat so ingrained it prevents him from wanting anyone else to progress. The fact that Benny is pretty evidently gay, from his abiding love for Fleetwood Mac and a tendency to give soap opera-esque plot lines to his action figures, grows less important both to the other characters and to the story itself, effortlessly making the idea of inclusion extend to how the family naturally starts to form anew when all the characters look for acceptance in one way or another.
The relatively light touch gives “Frybread and Me” a cumulative power as it rolls along, reflecting a way of life where both tragedy and celebration aren’t treated as major events but part of a continuum making any effort to break the cycle feel big. As characters learn throughout that the stories they may have grown up with might not be entirely true, at least this one about growing up does.
“Frybread Face and Me” will screen at SXSW on March 13th at 4:15 pm at Violet Crown Cinema 2 and 4:45 pm at Violet Crown Cinema 4 and March 17th at 6 pm at AFS Cinema.