In Billy Luther’s new coming-of-age film, Frybread Face and Me, which premiered last week at the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas, the lead actor, Keir Tallman (Navajo), served as a sort-of tween doppelgänger to the director himself.
“Me and Billy, we were just basically the same in many ways when making the film,” Tallman, now 13, tells In The Know by Yahoo. “At the time, I was still learning Navajo, and he was also learning Navajo, which was kind of funny.”
In Frybread Face and Me, Luther (Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo) tells the story of 12-year-old Benny (played by Tallman), whose parents send him on a bus from San Diego to spend the summer of 1990 on the Navajo reservation with his Grandma Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani), who doesn’t speak English. There, he meets his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), whose nickname is Frybread Face or Fry and has little time for this city cousin who knows more about dolls and Fleetwood Mac than herding sheep.
As someone who has moved between life on and off the rez, from stints at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., to the Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah, Luther sought to tell a story that not only reflected his own experience but also that of many other Indigenous youth.
“As much as I want to push it away and say it’s not personal — my story — it is,” Luther tells In The Know by Yahoo. “But when I was filming, I realized the cast and crew that were Native, this is their story, too. And I thought that was really fascinating. It was just a very universal story.”
Spotlighting Native humor
Part of telling that story was spotlighting the humor that comes with growing up in general and growing up Native in particular — an aspect of the culture that has arguably been lacking in many mainstream portrayals of Indigenous life.
“I think there’s a lot of humor in the film that I think people are finally getting used to a bit, because you have something like Reservation Dogs that has a lot of humor,” Luther says. “In the past, our stories have usually dealt with trauma or some history of pain.”
And while that aspect of life is certainly covered in the film, in the person of Benny’s “jaded” uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier), audiences also get the chance to see hilariously relatable instances of trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to connect with family. Whether that’s by watching Starman on a broken TV for the hundredth time, or driving a car without a windshield across the Arizona desert with your cousin, to track down a single sheep.
“They always tell you not to work with kids or animals in your films. And I did both. You know, we had sheep. We had a dog who wouldn’t cooperate,” Luther shares about the humor that happened off screen as well.
“There’s this one day that we were filming,” Tallman adds. “It was like pouring so hard, and there’s a lightning storm, and we all had to go inside one of the buildings, like the hogan or the trailer. It was so funny.”
“What’s really great about being on set was that everybody just felt like family,” Luther says, “and we were doing something special.”
Capturing layered identities
The film was executive produced by Taika Waititi, and what made it particularly special for Luther was being able to explore the layered identities of being a young multitribal Native American LGBTQ person.
“All of those elements are me,” Luther says. “I think what I was challenged with, and what hurt me, was when I was keeping things to myself and not being as open and honest. And I think once I released and started being more open and honest with who I am, the words just came out, and the dialogue came out.”
Tallman agrees that openness and trust are key when it comes to understanding identity, whether that’s Native identity or LGBTQ identity.
Reaching out to someone you trust and telling them how you feel is important, he says. “Progress from there to start knowing who you are.”
As in the case of Benny and Frybread Face and Me, that connection, to understanding who you are, often starts with family.
“Because when you get down to it, family is ultimately who shapes us, who we become,” Luther says. “And I think that for me, that was my grandmother, who I never had a conversation with. I had always had to have a translator. But the love and the connection that we felt physically, we didn’t need any words.”
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