[box cover]

Smoke Signals

Miramax Home Video

Starring Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard,
and Gary Farmer

Written by Sherman Alexie
based on his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Directed by Chris Eyre

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On the Coeur d'Alene indian reservation in Idaho, life floats by like a slow breeze. K-REZ, the low-watt radio station which serves the indian community, broadcasts the same basic traffic report every morning: "A big truck is passing by." A pause. "Now it's gone." Another pause. "Ain't no traffic, really." The meteorological report is just as laconic: "One of those clouds looks kinda like a horse." It's the sort of place where people still prefer to barter for their goods, and if you can't afford to have the "forward" gear of your car fixed, then hey, you simply drive around in reverse. But life here only looks slow and dreamy if you happen to live somewhere else. The residents of this community have their own fair share of joy, desire, catastrophe and discontent, all carefully buried behind the idyllic facade they put up for the benefit of the tourists.

It's a rare tale indeed which is able to bring together sentimentality, wistfulness, and absolution in such a way that it feels fresh and new, rather than old and reheated, but Smoke Signals is such a film. Not only does it allow us a peek into the highly personal lives of its characters, it paints them with such a deft touch that we are completely drawn into their world, experiencing all the pain and triumph of these fascinating people. This is a film where, when the end credits begin to roll, you simply stay in your seat and think about what you've just seen, while simultaneously wishing the experience wasn't over.

The story opens on July 4, 1976, the American bi-centennial. On the reservation, indians celebrate "the white man's day of freedom" by shooting off fireworks and drinking beer. The festivities are quickly disrupted, however, when a fire breaks out in a nearby house. The young couple inside finds themselves trapped in the burning building, and fling their newborn baby from a third-story window in a desperate attempt to save it from the inferno. A quick- thinking neighbor, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), manages to catch the child, but all he and the other onlookers can do is watch and listen as the parents burn.

The infant that Arnold saves is Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Raised by his grandmother after being saved from the flames, Thomas grows into an intelligent, amiable young man, full of stories and laughter. Sadly, Thomas is also a bit of a nerd, and is therefore shunned by the other indians. Cruelest of all is Arnold's son Victor (Adam Beach), who later accuses Thomas of having learned everything he knows about their heritage by watching Dances with Wolves over and over.

Victor has demons of his own, however. His father, despite the brief moment of heroism in which he saved Thomas, is an alcoholic who is just as likely to communicate with his fists as with words. When Arnold storms out after a fight with his wife and moves to Arizona, never to return, Victor learns an important lesson: one must never love, for love leads to pain. The lesson is heeded, though Victor never forgives his father for deserting him.

Flash forward to present day, as word of Arnold's death filters back to the reservation. As his only son, Victor knows what he must do: travel to Arizona, pick up his father's ashes, and bring them back to the reservation as indian tradition demands. There's a problem, however: Victor has no money, no car, and precious little experience dealing with the great big world outside the reservation's boundaries. Thomas, hearing of Victor's plight, offers to buy Victor a bus ticket on one condition: he, Thomas, must be allowed to come along and pay his respects to the man who saved his life so long ago. Victor grudgingly agrees, and the two men head off on a journey which will change both of them forever.

The film borders on heavy at times, but the witty script from Sherman Alexie knows when to lighten the mood with humor. The interplay between Thomas and Victor, an indian Odd Couple, is priceless. Thomas, who has even less experience being off the reservation than Victor, is constantly fascinated by the smallest details. "I went to Denny's once," he tells Victor wonderingly. "Even though it was after twelve, they still let me order the Grand Slam Breakfast!" In another scene, Victor tries to get Thomas to act more like an indian. "Indians don't smile, Thomas. Get stoic!" This is a wonderful moment, as is another in which Thomas and Victor sing a lengthy song about John Wayne's false teeth... to the great annoyance of the other passengers.

Along the way, we watch Victor come to terms with the death of his father, who he has always considered a loser and a deserter. Thomas, who knows Arnold only as the man who saved his life, disagrees with this assessment. As more of Arnold's personality is revealed to us via flashbacks, we learn that neither Victor or Thomas have the complete picture. Mercifully, the film does not try to make Arnold into a good man — just a real one. Victor will learn that his father was not quite the monster he'd always believed, just as Thomas will discover that no man, including the late Arnold Joseph, is a saint. It's a revelation that makes both men rethink their philosophies.

As one would expect of any mismatched pair, there is an incredible amount of friction between our two main characters. When the friendly Thomas befriends a white woman on the bus, Victor insults her and drives her away. Thomas's chatterbox dialogue grates on Victor's ears, and they have differing opinions on just about everything. But through it all, a special bond forms between them. Due to the skillful way in which the film depicts their growing fondness, we never doubt either man's sincerity. By the end of the movie, Victor and Thomas have each inherited a smattering of the other's personality, and both are better people for it. Their final parting scene, in which Thomas receives a special gift from his new friend, is so unselfish and "real" that I was honestly touched by it. The fact that such a powerful response could be generated by such a short scene says a great deal about the skill of the actors, director, and screenwriter. These characters stay with us long after the film is over, as does the haunting climactic voice-over, solemnly delivered by Thomas. This is an incredible debut from first-time director Chris Eyre, full of warmth, humor, and most of all, life.

Smoke Signals is presented in a beautiful widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. Unfortunately, the disc contains little in the way of supplementary material, apart from a single trailer. Considering the historical significance of this film (it's the first movie ever made entirely be a Native American cast and crew), it's a pity that a commentary track with Eyre and Alexie was not included. I'm sure they could have provided some fascinating insight into the struggles they faced to make this film a reality.

— Joe Barlow

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