In “Frybread Face and Me,” Benny Lovell might be a few years away from the edge of 17, but the 12-year-old Indian kid has a passion for Fleetwood Mac. It’s his fondness for the band, its witchy vocalist Stevie Nicks as well as for dolls (“action figures,” he corrects) that has his parents sending him from San Diego to his maternal grandmother on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. But before he gets on the bus headed east, adult Benny in voice-over offers a caveat: “If you think no one does dysfunction like Fleetwood Mac, then you haven’t met my family.” It’s 1990 and a summer that initially smacks of exile and punishment becomes one of discovery — self-discovery to be sure, but also cultural and familial.
Keir Tallman stars as Benny, the “Me” of writer-director Billy Luther’s warm debut narrative feature. Luther, of the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo Laguna nations, has made feature documentaries. “Frybread Face and Me” — which premiered at SXSW — is his affable and insightful foray into fiction storytelling.
Benny’s wild-child Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges) picks him up at the Winslow bus depot and drives him over the two-lane blacktops and dusty roads to his grandmother’s trailer on a flat and wide expanse on the Navajo Nation. (The land gets its fair and deserved share of close-ups.) Lucy tells Benny to ignore his uncle Marvin who lives in a shed near the trailer. “He’s half Hopi,” she says. It’s just one of the movie’s tossed off quips that declares that Luther made his film to speak to Indian audiences first.
Soon enough, another youngster arrives, dragging a black plastic bag of belongings in tow. “Frybread Face” is the none-too-kind nickname Benny’s cousin Dawn has been given by the adults. She’s dropped off by her mother, who wheels away into the dusk without much ceremony. Although she’s 10, she’s bigger and savvier than Benny. She carries a shabby doll whose head keeps tumbling off. She named it Jeff Bridges in tribute to the actor’s “Starman” character.
Charley Hogan is deeply watchable as Benny’s pudgy cousin and guide. Fry knows so much more than she lets on — and she lets on a lot. When Benny boasts that “Mick Fleetwood is the best drummer ever,” she replies “clearly you’ve never been to a pow-wow before.” After learning that Benny is from San Diego, she christens her cuz “Shamu” for the Sea World attraction.
Navajo weaver Sarah Natani portrays Grandmother, a constant and hushed force. Because Grandmother raises sheep, the audience gets glimpses of the weaving art form from start to beautiful finish. She provides the high desert sanctuary kids are sent to when their parents’ lives are teetering or already in a shambles. A particularly ouchy and believable disagreement finds the cousins drawing blood, emotionally. Fry tells Benny that the reason he’s on the rez is because his parents are divorcing. In retaliation, he blurts out news of her father’s incarceration.
Martin Sensmeier plays Marvin, the handsome but bullying uncle. “Are you a cowgirl or cowboy?” he asks Benny by way of introduction. And then warns him to never go near the corrugated aluminum and lumber shed. To his credit, the filmmaker is in no hurry to give us reasons to like him — even though we can gather that something’s husbanded his meanness. A bull-riding accident doesn’t much soften him; it just makes him a little less physically unpredictable.
In the movie’s narrative voiceover, the older Benny never takes on a superior tone to his younger self.
Family dysfunction is common enough fodder for intimate indie dramas, but it’s seldom centered this low-key lovingly amid an American Indian family. (Taika Waititi, co-creator of FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” is the executive director.) As is the way with many a childhood summer apart from the parents, not much and everything happens. Sheep go missing and get found. A friendship is forged. Feelings are hurt and then mended like the fences around the sheep enclosure.
Grandmother talks to Benny in Navajo exclusively. In a clever gesture that accentuates how little he understands what she’s saying, the movie doesn’t provide subtitles when Grandmother speaks to him. Any other time she’s talking, it does. Watching this family interact is a reminder how rare it is to see so many American indigenous actors in a space, weaving the unique and universal into stories that expand our storehouse of their experience.