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Weekly Alibi "Smoke Signals"

Native Sons

By Devin D. O'Leary

JULY 20, 1998:  American Indians are no strangers to the big screen. Since the inception of cinema, they have been there--as villain, as background player, as exotic window dressing. Tom Mix rode alongside them in The Miracle Rider; John Wayne rescued his daughter from them in The Searchers; Kevin Costner communed with them in Dances With Wolves. Though rarely presented with any accuracy and frequently played by actors without the slightest hint of native blood, Indians have always been before the moviegoing public's eyes. In recent years, Hollywood has adopted a growing sensitivity toward native peoples, portraying them as the keepers of all things spiritual, noble and wise. It's hard to believe, then, that Smoke Signals is the very first film to be written, produced, directed and acted entirely by Native Americans.

Smoke Signals is based on author Sherman Alexie's award-winning collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Alexie, a Coeur d'Alene Indian raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, has become one of America's hottest novelists as well as a forerunner in the modern poetry resurgence. Alexie also serves as producer for Smoke Signals and, as such, has succeeded in bringing his work to the screen in a pure, undiluted form. Alexie is an Indian and proud of it (for one thing he calls himself an "Indian" and doesn't muck about with politically correct terms like "Native American"). Smoke Signals represents Alexie's most prominent chance to show Indians as he sees them--not by complaining about their plight, not by reiterating their poorly recorded history, but by making an entertaining, witty and offbeat independent film (which just happens to be about Indians).

Smoke Signals tells the story of two young Indians living on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in Idaho. Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) is an angry, cocksure jock who has sported a major chip on his shoulder ever since his alcoholic father hit the road 10 years previous. Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) is a twitchy, bespectacled oddball who keeps his people's storytelling tradition alive by spouting endless (and possibly pointless) parables from the past. Though they seem to share not a single thing in common, these two young men are eternally bound together by tragic events from the past. When Victor's long-lost father dies outside of Phoenix, he finds himself linked in an uneasy partnership with Thomas. Thomas is willing to give Victor the money he needs to make the cross-country trip to recover his father's ashes, but only if Victor agrees to take Thomas with him. Thomas is an orphan and the two, deep down, share similar issues of parental abandonment.

Although our two protagonists are engaging in that age-old Hollywood rite-of-passage known as "The Road Movie," it is the infusion of authentic Indian culture that makes Smoke Signals such a refreshing film. First-time director Chris Eyre (a Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker from Klamath Falls, Ore.) handles his camera with confidence and a sweeping visual poetry that more than complements Alexie's words. Early scenes of a disastrous Fourth of July party are lensed with all the mythic weight of a Ridley Scott film. Together, Eyre and Alexie have created a most unique portrait of Indian culture. Gone are the whooping, painted stereotypes of yesteryear. Gone, too, are the "sensitive" spiritual wisemen of today. For the first time, we see Indians as they truly are: complex, multifaceted, human.

Despite the film's dramatic storyline, there is a great deal of humor on display here. Small, observant moments imbue Smoke Signals with a witty, good-natured atmosphere. Life on the reservation, for example, is shown in all its ramshackle, easygoing glory. "It's a good day to be indigenous!" barks the enthusiastic DJ at KREZ radio. A traffic reporter delivers his unhurried report ("Well, a yellow pickup just drove by") from the KREZ news van that is eternally broken down at a lonely crossroads. Two local party girls give our boys a ride in their car (a Thunderbird) that only goes in reverse. American Indians, of course, have a rich language and a long-standing oral tradition. This verbal love is brilliantly demonstrated in both Thomas' frequent storytelling and in the film's obvious love of wordplay and pun. No film I can recall has dared to portray Indians as humorous. Humor, in fact, seems to be an ingrained part of reservation life--the "laugh or cry" ethos of the poor and downtrodden.

The acting (by largely unknowns) is quite good here. Evan Adams is the stronger of the two leads, giving his Indian Urkel more than enough depth to project off the screen. In the supporting categories, the luminous Irene Bedard (best known as the voice of Disney's Pocahontas) is a sight for sore eyes. She fairly radiates natural beauty and poise as a friend of Victor's itinerant father and the keeper of some revelatory family secrets. The script, though treading familiar territory, keeps a few twists and turns in reserve for all its characters. If the film's ending seems too contrite (the usual stuff about forgiving our fathers and not repeating their sins), then the hour and a half of good charm that Smoke Signals has built up before then is more than enough to overcome such obstacles.

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