Reviewed by: Patton Dodd
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.