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Grade: B+Smoke Signals (1999)

Director: Chris Eyre

Stars: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Sherman Alexie interview

Chris Eyre: Smoke Signals


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"It's a good day to be indigenous!"

When I was growing up in Illinois, the only images I got of Indians were from John Wayne movies and from the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. Many years later I ended up living on the Navajo reservation. I didn't find the noble Uncas there, nor did I find stoic, bloodthirsty warriors. I didn't even find the same Indians that Arthur Penn directed in Little Big Man or the ones Kevin Costner pictured in Dances with Wolves. What happened to contemporary Indians? Did they all disappear after Wounded Knee?

It turns out that they are alive, and many are doing well. On the reservation I found many open-hearted human beings who have the most outrageous sense of humor I've ever encountered—a secret that only a few are privileged to know. This "secret" has now been exposed with the 1998 release of a unique movie about contemporary Indians written by a Native American (Sherman Alexie), directed by a Native American (Chris Eyer), and starring authentic Native Americans—Smoke Signals.

It's by far the most accurate portrayal of contemporary Native American life ever put to celluloid. The only other movie that is comparable is the quirky Pow Wow Highway. Based on Alexie's book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals begins in the Pacific Northwest on the Couer d'Alene Reservation with two young men in their late teens who have grown up essentially fatherless: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) lost his parents in a housefire when he was a baby, and Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) saw his father succumb to alcohol and run off. Thomas, a "geeky" visionary storyteller, and the athletic Victor end up travelling together to Phoenix in search of Victor's father, who has just died.

Despite being polar opposites, the two young men have much in common. In essence, they share the same father since Arnold Joseph had saved Thomas from the housefire and once provided Thomas with a fatherly Kodak moment when he took him to Denny's for a Grand Slam breakfast. Thomas has recalled and recited that story hundreds of times, yet Victor doesn't seem to mind. There are more connections, but I don't want to spoil too much of the plot for you.

The journey to Phoenix is a quest, much like the traditional Navajo story about the Twins who seek their father. They learn a great deal about the father along the way, and even more about themselves. As the camera pans over the river, we hear Thomas ask
"How do we forgive our fathers...
for leaving us too often, or forever when we are young
And should we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness...
for speaking through walls, or never speaking,
or never being silent...
Like the final scene in Field of Dreams, it's a moment to cause the men in the audience to wipe the sweat from their eyes.

Smoke Signals has some notable flaws. The acting of the two main characters may be the biggest weakness of the film though both are able to carry the movie. Beach at times seems uncomfortable and unnatural in his role while Adams occasionally goes over the top as the young medicine man-in-training. The Thomas character was the one I had the most difficulty accepting since I don't recall seeing anyone quite like him during my 21 years on the reservation. I found Thomas irritating the first time I saw the movie, but he grew on me after that.

The supporting cast makes up for any shortcomings by the lead players. Especially notable are veteran Native American actors Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph, Tantoo Cardinal as Arlene Joseph, and Irene Bedard as Suzy Song. Also look for Elaine Mills (Marilyn of Northern Exposure fame) in a humorous cameo as the driver of a car that runs only in reverse. These supporting players are all very experienced actors/actresses who have played in numerous films.

I especially like the way Smoke Signals interweaves the flashbacks with the contemporary journey in stream of consciousness style. An entry or exit through a specific door acts as a time portal as the protagonists shift from age twelve to nineteen or twenty and vice versa. It's through these flashbacks that we begin to understand Victor's character in particular and begin to understand the unspoken actions of his father.

The other aspect of the film that instantly struck me is the authentic Native American humor. Even the opening shots, reminiscent of Spike Lee's classic Do the Right Thing, totally crack me up. The scene has former AIM leader John Trudell acting as the omniscient DJ of K-REZ radio switching to a live report with Lester Fallsapart in his traffic van broken down at the crossroads: "Big truck just went by ... and now it's gone." It may not seem like much to some people, but it absolutely nails reservation humor.

Other reservation-style humorous touches spice up Alexie's dialogue throughout the film—references to Geronimo as the greatest basketball player, Columbus references, the Pow Wow song about John Wayne's teeth, the hilarious "Frybread Power" sight gag, and many other jokes and stories. Well, it's a slightly different sense of humor than what you hear in mainstream society, but I guarantee that it's authentic Native American humor. My Navajo and Hopi friends all think it's hilarious, even after numerous viewings.

Sherman Alexie has redefined the Native American film genre with Smoke Signals but clearly showing that Native Americans have not vanished from contemporary society, that they are human beings with goals and dreams, and that they are real human beings with open hearts and great senses of humor.

I had a chance to chat via the Internet with Alexie just after the release of Smoke Signals, and he was very pumped. Half jokingly he remarked how he would like to see his film sweep the Oscars—a "Titanic with braids." It didn't receive any nominations last year, but it does deserve more viewings. It's the best film ever made that captures the real character and spirit of modern Native Americans. Bookmark and Share

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