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'Smoke Signals': A Few Reservations

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 1998

  Movie Critic

Smoke Signals
Evan Adams plays against stereotypes of Native Americans in "Smoke Signals." (Miramax)

Chris Eyre
Adam Beach;
Evan Adams;
Irene Bedard;
Gary Farmer;
Tantoo Cardinal
Running Time:
1 hour, 29 minutes
For cussing, domestic violence and the aftermath of a car crash
"Smoke Signals" is remarkable for one thing only: It is the first full-length movie written, directed, co-produced and performed by Native Americans. Directed by Chris Eyre and adapted by screenwriter Sherman Alexie from his book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," the film boasts a non-stereotypical portrayal of life on Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation, but otherwise it is a conventional story of an emotionally closed young man's coming to terms with his dead father.

That young man is Victor Joseph, played with brooding intensity by Adam Beach. Victor was ticked off and sullen as a kid (Cody Lightning) when his alcoholic father Arnold (Gary Farmer) ran off, and now he's a ticked-off and sullen 22-year-old. Nowadays, however, he characterizes that mood as "stoic" and recommends that his goofy friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) adopt it too. "Get stoic, Thomas," he advises. "You're an Indian."

The cliche of the steely-eyed red man doesn't work for Thomas, though. With his geeky suit, toothy grin, safety glasses, braids and "Frybread Power" T-shirt, he looks like a cross between a computer nerd and Pippi Longstocking. But when the born storyteller squeezes his eyes shut and spins a tale in his "reservation accent" that makes him sound like an aboriginal Emo Phillips, you know that his roots are planted in ancient soil.

"How's that for the oral tradition?" cracks Thomas, after inventing a particularly far-fetched yarn. In the matter of offensive cultural preconceptions, the film manages to avoid cliches by acknowledging them. There are repeated instances of this self-mocking humor. Inside jokes about bartering and sarcastic references such as "you know how Indians feel about signing paper" abound.

When news reaches the reservation that Victor's father has died in a trailer park outside of Phoenix and that somebody has to pick up his ashes, Victor and Thomas hop on a bus with a jar of loose change and begin a journey that is as much spiritual as physical.

There are elements of buddy-bonding in "Smoke Signals" as the two friends learn about themselves and each other, but that chord is subordinate to the dominant theme of forgiveness that Victor must follow in order to accept himself and the remains of his dad.

The audience knows from the movie's opening flashback that, as infants, both Thomas and Victor were pulled by Victor's father from a fire that consumed Thomas's parents. But we don't know the secret that tormented him all these years and that will rise up from the metaphorical ashes when they get to Phoenix (get it?).

It is such unsubtle allusions that make "Smoke Signals" more of a literary than a cinematic success. In fact, Thomas's closing monologue was adapted from a poem by Dick Lourie called "Forgiving Our Fathers."

Like the oral tradition embodied by the quirky character of Thomas, "Smoke Signals" is a well-crafted story with a unique voice. But its literary gifts are outweighed by its pictorial prosaicness. Dimming the screen in every shot is the unmistakable shadow of the page.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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