July 22, 1998
Smoke Signals, a movie directed by Chris Eyre and written by Sherman Alexie (based on his own short stories), has been getting a lot of press because it is the first movie written, directed, starring and having overall involvement by Native Americans. It has been screened in many U.S. Film Festivals (Florida, Sundance, New York, Nantucket). It even won the Audience Award and Filmmaker's Trophy at Sundance. But don't go see this movie because of all of the attention and accolades. Go see it because it is magical and thoughtful and sad and hopeful. Go see it because it is, simply, a good and entertaining film.
If you can't already tell - I loved this movie. I should disclaim a little here and warn you that I tend to love small movies in which people tell stories, and in which small-town life is observed. I love John Sayles movies in general for this reason (and The Secret of Roan Inish and Lone Star in particular). I love movies like Tender Mercies, Nobody's Fool, and Cinema Paradiso for these reasons. So, if a movie comes along which combines the elements of small-town life and storytelling, chances are that I'm going to like it.
Smoke Signals is such a movie. It gives us a picture of life on the "Rez" (the reservation), and how the small-town boys deal with the world outside. Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) are two twenty-ish Native American men who live on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho. Victor and Thomas are close to the same age, but they're as different as night and day. Victor is handsome and moody, and a gifted athlete. Thomas is small and, well, nerdy. He is a storyteller who wears braids and glasses. Thomas outright annoys Victor, yet they share a dark, deep bond. Victor's father, Arnold (Gary Farmer) rescued Thomas from the house fire which killed his own parents when Thomas was an infant. Although Arnold is Victor's father, he is Thomas's father-figure, and through Arnold, Victor's and Thomas's destinies are linked.
Arnold, despite his heroism, battles his own demons. He is an alcoholic who lashes out at his family in anger. Arnold is also a magician. When Victor and Thomas are about twelve years old, Arnold makes himself disappear from the reservation. Victor spends the next few years angry at Arnold and life in general. Thomas, much to Victor's annoyance, will not shut up about Arnold, and tells story after story about him. One day, Victor's mother (Tantoo Cardinal) receives a phone call from a young woman named Suzy Song (Irene Bedard). Suzy has been Arnold's neighbor in Phoenix for the last couple of years. Suzy calls to inform the family that Arnold has died, that she has arranged for his cremation, and that someone must come to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes. The two boys resolve to go.
Victor's and Thomas's journey takes them outside of the reservation for what appears to be their first time. Here, the film delivers some commentary about white people, and some clever scenes poking fun at their own Native American stereotypes (there is more than one joke about Dances With Wolves). However, the journey becomes one of enlightenment and discovery (both self-discovery and understanding), and Thomas and Victor are both enriched for having made the trip. Although set in a Native American context, the challenges and the struggles facing Victor and Thomas are universal - especially those dealing with fathers and sons and coming to terms with family secrets.
The script is very good - as there is a bit of storytelling within the film, it was imperative that the right words were chosen. The narrative was wonderful as it moved between the present and the past effortlessly (I was reminded of the narratives of Lone Star and Dolores Claiborne where characters from the past walked in and out of scenes in the present). All of the actors are terrific, truly bringing their characters to life. The direction is deft, and the pace of the movie is very quick. On a critical note, some of the scenes are a little bit to cute for their own good, but there are very few of these. All in all, I loved this film - it's the first one I've seen this year which I will purchase when it is released on video.
My husband, Erik, and I are recent transplants from New England. We live
with our two cats, Ellie (from Damiel, the angel in the German film Wings
and Phineas, otherwise known as Blackie (which describes both his fur and
Being childless, by choice, these are our substitutes, and we never miss a
discuss them as such, much to the annoyance of our friends with children.
very exciting lives, something like jet-setters, except that we rarely
travel, don't go out much and both prefer to read or watch films (although
Erik also likes professional wrestling, which he continually refers to as
our country's second great art form, after jazz).
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