1998, PG-13, 88 min. Directed by Chris Eyre. Starring Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal, Cody Lightning, Simon Baker.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 17, 1998
This feature debut from Eyre is also being billed as the first film written, directed, and co-produced by American Indians, but hanging it on the indigenous hook does Smoke Signals a disservice. At once poignant and slyly humorous, Eyre's film touches on the universal themes of loss, betrayal, redemption, and father/son relationships in ways that echo not only inside the reservation but outside as well. Beach plays Victor Joseph, a Couer d'Alene Indian in Idaho whose father Arnold (Farmer) quit reservation life and headed out in his prized yellow pickup truck 10 years back, when Victor was a young boy. Years before his departure, a tremendous fire swept through the house of Victor's friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire when an all-night Fourth of July party left most of the reservation – including Arnold – falling down drunk and unaware of the impending tragedy. Arnold saved young Thomas, but the boy's parents died, and since then Thomas has become the reservation outcast of sorts, grinning, bespectacled, socially inept, but with a mystical gift for telling wildly improbable stories to anyone who will listen. Flash forward to the present: News of Arnold's death arrives, and a stoic, handsome Victor decides to drive to his father's final home, in Arizona, to collect his truck and whatever else might await him there. The only problem? Not enough money for the journey. It's here that Thomas steps in, offering Victor his piggy bank in exchange for the chance to travel with him. Arnold did, after all, save the young Thomas, and Victor hesitantly agrees. What follows, then, is less road trip than voyage of discovery, that takes the unlikely partnership from the scrubby, hardscrabble reservation to the final resting place of their only real male authority figure, and beyond. Eyre's film, which has a screenplay by Sherman Alexie and is based on stories from his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, isn't nearly as wearyingly downbeat as a capsule description might make it sound. Smoke Signals is alight with oddball nuances and wry observations: the reservation's radio station, KREZ, uses a broken-down van at the deserted crossroads to gauge the (nonexistent) traffic conditions, and Victor's mother Arlene (Cardinal) is a master in the fine art of flatbread-making. Subtle, lyrically haunting touches like these evoke a palpable sense of loss and the sub-poverty level of Native American life, but also unite the tribe – broken by alcohol and abuse though they may be – in long-held beliefs and rituals. It's Victor who teaches his inanely happy friend to “act like a real Indian,” and Thomas who forces Victor to confront the ghosts of his past no matter how terrible they may seem. The cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, and Eyre's persistent use of long, trailing shots reinforces the story's elegiac tone. Simple and elegant, Smoke Signals is a delicious, heady debut that lingers long after the tale is told.