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Movie Review

Smoke Signals

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense images

Reviewed by: Patton Dodd
CONTRIBUTOR

Average
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
16 to Adult
Genre:
Drama
Length:
88 min.
Year of Release:
1998

Starring: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer | Director: Chris Eyre | Released by: Shadow Catcher Entertainment | Distributed by: Miramax

Once in a great while, a humble movie with something on its mind will squeeze its way through the Hollywood bottleneck and receive the national attention it deserves. “Il Postino”, “Kolya”, and “Ponette” all serve as recent examples; this year, the American Indian film “Smoke Signals” is sure to be the film that rises above its own expectations to make a significant impact on cinematic culture.

“Smoke Signals” enters into national distribution on the strength of two Sundance prizes, including the Audience Award. It is conspicuous in that it is the first film to be written, directed, performed, and produced entirely by American Indians. As such, it is a fresh cinematic voice and a rare peek into the only indigenous people in the United States. Sherman Alexie’s screenplay is two parts formulaic plot and one part inspired character study. The story is basic: two lifelong friends hit the road and find themselves dealing with personal ghosts. The characterization, however, is genuine, endearing, and humorous. Victor, played by Adam Beach, is a stoic, angry type who resents his father for abandoning the family. Needing a ride to Phoenix to recover his father’s ashes, Victor is forced to ask for help from Thomas (Evan Adams), an animated and overbearing loner. As the buddies journey, writer Alexie and director Chris Eyre unfold multiple dimensions of Victor and Thomas' characters, engaging the viewer with seamless flashbacks, subtly choreographed drama, and wry, poignant dialougue.

Viewers should be warned that “Smoke Signals” is an unerring and disconcertingly honest look at American Indian domesticity. An unambiguous camera places the viewer right at the edge of scenes of family violence motivated by heavy doses of alcohol. Nothing is gratuitious, however, and the movie continually endorses the winds of change and freedom which have been beckoning American Indians for centuries. “Smoke Signals” should be viewed with an eye toward cultural exposure, but its thematic content is distinctly universal, and, if nothing else, it is a nice break from Hollywood’s disastrous summer movie fare.

Viewer Comments
I have watched this movie several times already, both on video and since it first appeared on Starz. Each time I watch it, I can’t help to notice just how honest the film is. Having been to Alaska, where Indians make up a strong majority of the population, the film is accurate in its portrayal of Indian life. Many Indians suffer from alcoholism (so much so the Indians themselves have rehabilitation centers). The reference to “Indian time” is also true. Its a known fact that Indians do not participate in daylight savings with the rest of the country. “Indian time” also refers to the idea that time is not an integral part of Indian life. In Alaska, the church services may be scheduled to start at 7 p.m., but under Indian time the service actually starts when everyone gets there (may 7:15 or 7:30 p.m.) It’s the ideal that “people” are important. A viewer was questioning the missing “Native American stereotypes” in the movie? But, need I remind everyone that this movie was written, produced, directed and acted by Indians. Why would they stereotype themselves? They don’t and instead tell it as it is. A heartwarming and delightfully good film that I’ll probably watch again and again. I hope the same people who made this film will continue and give us another look at life as an Indian and on the reservation (and clear up the stereotypes that have grown about the people who were here long before white man and Spaniards).
—Brian McClimans
I was terribly disappointed by this film. Although the film has good intentions, its lameness in storytelling and caricatures ultimately sinks it. The film replaces the “traditional” Native American stereotype (which was a good thing to do) with lousy Hollywood stereotypes of nerd vs. bully (a sign of the deprived screenwriters' imagination). The stories told were not interesting nor convicting. The only thing going for it is in several moments of stunning cinematography.
—Nicholas Kleszczewski
I went expecting a nice movie on a Native Culture. I got much more. This movie struck at the heart of my being. Without any monsters, aliens or shipwrecks this movie managed to be highly entertaining and had a blunt message. I beseech those who haven’t seen it to go see this movie. Its Christian context is there. The art of forgiveness is a message few movies really address. This is by far the best movie I have seen all year.
—Susan, age 27