There were several coming-of-age and coming home films at this year’s festival. Both kinds of movies allow a personal story to be told with a universal lens. This is the case for writer/director Billy Luther’s “Frybread Face and Me,” a semi-autobiographical film about a pivotal visit to his grandmother’s house in the Navajo Nation in the summer of 1990. Similarly, Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett’s charmer “Uproar” takes the real story of political unrest in 1981 New Zealand and crafts a story about finding your voice while embracing your roots. In co-writer/director Dominic Savage and co-writer Elliot Page’s “Close To You,” coming home after an estrangement examines how family isn’t just about blood relations; it’s about being seen for who you really are.
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.
Dennison plays Josh, a jovial 17-year-old who lives with his English mum (the always great Minnie Driver) and his brother Jamie (James Rolleston). His only goal is to get through school in one piece, often hiding from his racist classmates in the library. When one of his teachers (Rhys Darby, funny as ever) suggests Josh join the drama club and his best friend Grace (Jada Fa’atui) gets involved in the protest, Josh finds himself with a new calling and a deeper connection to his culture. With his signature charm and wit, Josh’s journey allows Dennison to tap into a deeper well of complex dramatic emotions, often conveyed with a look or a shared glance of mutual understanding.
When a white ally downplays the anger of Samantha (Erana James), a young Maori woman, during a meeting, her Auntie Tui (Mabelle Dennison) tells the woman that they know what is to belong to a land and at the same time be made to feel unwelcome. They can’t just “get over it” because “it” is still happening. “Uproar” examines the toll of assimilation and the ongoing aggressions of colonizers in a way that’s as timely as ever, with parallels to the Land Back movement and countless other indigenous and aboriginal rights moments.
Coming of age—and into your true self—doesn’t always happen as a teenager. In “Close To You,” one of two films that Elliot Page produced under his Pageboy Productions banner, Page’s Sam is finally living his life openly as himself. And yet, there is still a lingering tension with his family.
Filmed on location in Toronto’s Kensington Market district and the small town of Cobourg, Sam is a thirtysomething young man just getting back on his feet after making some big life changes. He lives in a room he rents from a friend and works a new, fulfilling job. However, he’s been estranged from his family for several years, and tension surrounds his coming out as trans masc. “Close to You” began as a phone conversation between co-writer Page and co-writer/director Dominic Savage, and Savage often films Page with a handheld, almost verite style that puts you right into Sam’s perspective as he navigates this situation.
Finally feeling truly happy with his new life after a long bout of depression, Sam has decided to bury the hatchet and visit his family for his father’s birthday. On the train ride there, he unexpectedly reconnects with Katherine (Hillary Baack), the girl he was in love with as a teenager. Although she’s now married with two kids, there is still a spark between the two that shakes both of them to their core.
The film then follows Sam’s first visit home and the various ways his family attempts to support, or in the case of one brother-in-law, antagonize him just for existing. These moments are intercut with his easy connection with Katherine, who always saw Sam for who he was without hesitation.
While the film’s basic plot points, down to the brother-in-law and some on-the-nose speeches from both of Sam’s parents, are cut from many similar coming-out family dramas, its emotional core is strong. Page has such a distinct vision of what this experience feels like for someone like Sam, bringing the character’s interiority, joy, and rage to the surface with a lived-in rawness. In a sense, “Close to You” also serves as Page the Movie Star’s reintroduction to audiences, showing he is a singular talent as ever. I can’t wait to see what he does next.