Rated PG - Running time: 1:28 - Released 7/3/98

Probably any film involving the history and culture of Native Americans would have to be tragic in a way, since their history has been tragic since the late 15th century. And Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals does have tragic overtones. But it is a surprisingly lighthearted treatment of the "Indian" psyche, showing many different ways the people have of looking at their collective lot in life in the post-Columbus age.

The story opens on an Idaho reservation in 1976, the year our two protagonists were born. Victor is described as a pillar of fire; Thomas as a pillar of ash. The narration is actually done by Thomas (Evan Adams), now in his 22nd year. He describes a huge fire that broke out in the year of his birth, in his house, where his parents and Victor’s were having a party. The two babies were saved, but Thomas’s parents perished, anesthetized by alcohol. Thomas was reared by his grandmother (Monique Mojica), and steeped in the tradition of the spoken word. Thomas loves to tell stories, some of which are true, that all have some meaning — at least to him. Victor (Adam Beach), always silent, has little patience for his talkative co-survivor, feeling that the proper way for an Indian to act is brooding and pensive. "Get stoic," he says. Victor is an angry young man, full of pent-up resentment for his father Arnold (Gary Farmer), who left home for Phoenix when Victor was 12. The events that lead up to his departure are played out in a series of flashbacks, cleverly interlaced with the present story, in which the 12-year-old Victor is played by Cody Lightning, with Thomas played by Simon Baker.

When Victor’s mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) learns that her ex-husband has died in Arizona, they decide Victor must go to retrieve his remains, but neither of them have any money. Thomas has saved up some change, and he offers to help Victor fund his trip on one condition: that he take him along. So the two young men embark on a bus trip heading south. When they arrive at Arnold’s trailer, they meet Suzy Song (Disney's voice of Pocahontas Irene Bedard), Arnold’s apparent last lover, who tells them many stories about Arnold 's recent years. Most of the stories involve Arnold telling stories . . . about Victor. Some of them are true, too.

The plot of this movie, on the surface, is inconsequential. But what makes Sherman Alexie’s story so enjoyable is the mood it achieves, one completely different from any other film on the market. Somehow, among the small events and the storytelling, we are given a feel of the Native American way of life in the late 20th century. The injustice of history, the scourge of alcohol abuse, and the pleasure of frybread are woven together and inextricably linked to Victor’s relationship with Thomas and with his father. And his journeys, both physical and emotional, are deeply textured and complex. This film almost dares you to decipher all the symbolism.

Smoke Signals is likely to be loved by the Native American peoples, in part because it is the first film ever written, directed, and produced by Indians. But from the standpoint of the general public, it may seem a bit inaccessible. I think that’s the whole point, though: The peoples’ way of life is inaccessible to everyone else; no one else can really understand. Still, with such an excellent cast and Eyre’s quirky, impressionistic directing style, it is a film worth watching for everyone. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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