Set in the summer of 1990, writer/director Billy Luther’s warm, tender, and funny debut “Frybread Face and Me,” which was executive produced by Taika Waititi, explores the humor and joy in finding your footing with family and the strength that comes from embracing your heritage. The only plan 11-year-old Benny (Keir Tallman) has for his summer is to see Fleetwood Mac, but when tension rises between his parents, he’s sent to spend the summer at his grandma’s ranch in the Navajo Nation.
City kid Benny, whose obsession with Stevie Nicks bleeds into his fashion sense, sticks out like a sore thumb on the rez. His grandma (Sarah H. Natani) will only speak to him in Navajo. His Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges) is a much-needed loving presence but flighty. His Uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier) is often abrasive and unkind. But when his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan, hilariously direct), whose nickname is Frybread Face, is also left at grandma’s for the summer, Benny not only finds a friend but also begins to embrace his culture.
During the day, the two work the ranch, herding sheep and other odd jobs. At night, they watch and rewatch “Starman” (the last video Marvin rented before he was banned from the video store) to the point that Benny can recite every line. At first, Benny’s feelings of abandonment overwhelm him, but slowly, his newfound connections with his family inspire him to learn the language and traditions of his people. In doing so, Benny also learns to embrace certain aspects of his personhood without shame.
Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett’s engaging “Uproar” also has an unexpected connection to Waititi: star Julian Dennison, who charmed audiences with his witty comic timing and rich emotionality in Waititi’s zany “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Dennison once again brings his signature warmth, humor, and pathos for a singular and deeply affecting performance.
Set during a turbulent time in New Zealand history when the Apartheid-era South African Rugby team’s 1981 nationwide tour sparked protests, the film brings a decidedly political twist to the coming-of-age genre. While aspects of the script, co-written by Bennett and Sonia Whiteman, use a rote formula, the film has such a big heart it’s hard to resist its crowd-pleasing charms.