Indigenous boy finds his culture in ‘Frybread Face and Me’ film

Keir Tallman as Benny on a mission to find a missing sheep in “Frybread Face and Me.” (Photo/ARRAY Releasing)

Keir Tallman as Benny on a mission to find a missing sheep in “Frybread Face and Me.” (Photo/ARRAY Releasing)

Billy Luther could have easily used his 15 years of documentary film making to make an informative piece about frybread, but instead he decided to make a feature film with a girl nicknamed Frybread Face.

In “Frybread Face and Me,” which takes places in 1990, 11-year-old city boy Benny goes to stay with his Diné-only speaking grandmother on her Rez ranch as his parents sort out their divorce. There he meets new-to-him family members, including pudgy-yet-tough 11-year-old cousin Dawn, aka Frybread Face.

“Do you like being called Frybread Face?” Benny asks Dawn in one scene, testing out Aunt Lucy’s bright pink lipstick on himself as Lucy gives Dawn a makeover.

“It’s round and it’s greasy, what do you think?” Dawn retorts, with one of her many quick-quips.

“But it sure is good,” Benny says, as the group dissolves into laughter.

The coming-of-age story has elements of Luther’s own life, but isn’t autobiographical.

“I put elements of my experiences and my memory and story into the film, but it’s not my story in terms of the characters I created,” Luther said. “There’s no Frybread Face in my life. My parents have been married for over 60 years. I’m a filmmaker, I’m a writer, I make stuff, you know. I just put elements in there that kind of resonate with me and my memory and the time it was to be 11, and I just put it all together and hope it works. So it’s kind of like Yahtzee, you want to get all five, all sixes.”

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"Frybread Face and Me" director and writer Billy Luther, left, with producer Taika Waititi at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2023. (Photo/ Billy Luther Instagram)

Luther is Navajo on his mother’s side and Laguna-Hopi on his dad’s. He grew up in Winslow and would split his summers with his Diné-only speaking grandma in Kayenta, Arizona and Laguna Pueblo family in New Mexico.

“It was a really cool experience to have two completely different tribes and spend my summers there,” Luther said. “I’m just getting closer to my culture through my films and every film that I make there’s always a connection to identity and language.”

Luther wanted to shoot “Frybread Face and Me” at his grandma’s real-life ranch, but due to Covid restrictions in 2021, it was filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Luther doesn’t like to talk about his personal life much, but calls Winslow, “home-ish.” Both his parents went to Winslow High School, as did he.

“I did (filmmaking) on my own, there was no opportunity in Winslow,” Luther said. “I had to get out of there, you know. It was a really kind of … situation that just wasn’t kind to a kid that was different. It was just something that I needed to run away from. And really kind of do my own thing. And that’s all I wanted to do, that’s what kept me going every day, living in Winslow, because I just wanted to get out of there, and what happened was I just did it and I haven’t looked back.”

Luther calls Winslow Mayor Roberta “Birdie” Canó one of his best friends, and is excited that there is a film program at Winslow High School now.

“I want to go back and show (‘Frybread Face and Me’) there, and see all my teachers that I loved,” Luther said. “When people see Winslow in it they get happy.”

Cultural Ties

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Billy Luther's 2007 documentary "Miss Navajo" is available on Amazon Prime.

Although Luther ran away from Arizona to study film — first to Columbia College Chicago, then to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts — all his films have ties to his cultures in the southwest.

“When I made “Miss Navajo” in 2007 I had a lot of people come up to me saying “Miss Navajo” inspired us to get back to the language, and that was really meaningful to me,” Luther said. “You just never know what impact your films are going to have and how it’s going to touch and how people are going to respond to it.”

Having lived in Los Angeles for 20 years now, Luther is not as embedded in his cultures, but said he learns more about them and honors them through making his films and projects.

Currently, Luther writes episodes for “Dark Winds,” the psychological thriller on AMC that takes place on the Navajo Reservation, and Luther says he is constantly texting his mom to find out how to say certain words in Navajo.

“I want to learn every day,” Luther said. “I’m always getting language education.”

His family saw “Frybread Face and Me” when it premiered at South by Southwest in Austin in March.

“They love it, they laugh. I think what they get is the humor — they know my sense of humor. As a kid I was always making them laugh,” Luther said. “It was just really warming for them to see something that I created that was a positive message for our Indigenous youth.”

Benny and Frybread Face grow closer throughout the film, blending old culture with modern — dancing to powwow music with a giant stereo, stealing a car to gather a runaway sheep — as their struggles with their familial life, sexuality and identity come to the forefront.

“That’s part of filmmaking — you put so much into it to make it believable, and it is, it is,” Luther said. “Because it’s not just (Benny’s) story, its hundreds and maybe millions of Indigenous kids out there.”

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Keir Tallman as Benny explores his sexuality and culture in coming-of-age comedy “Frybread Face and Me.” (Photo/ARRAY Releasing)

What’s next

Luther calls himself fortunate to work in an industry that is not that easy, but that he loves. He said writing for “Dark Winds” is a full-time job, but also wants to turn his “Miss Navajo” documentary on the Navajo pageant into a kind of feature film.

“I have a handful of things that I’m working on right now,” Luther said. “During the (writer’s) strike we weren’t working for a long period of time, in the evenings and the weekends I would start developing things. I just have things that are popping up.”

Luther said he has to take everything one day at a time.

“The success of the film has been an incredible experience, showing it to communities Native and non-Native,” Luther said.

“Frybread Face and Me” is now on Netflix and in select theaters.

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