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SMOKE SIGNALS(director: Chris Eyrie; screenwriter: Sherman Alexie, based on stories from his book “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven;” cinematographer: Brian Capener; editor: Brian Berdan; cast: Adam Beach (Victor Joseph), Evan Adams (Thomas Builds-the-Fire), Irene Bedard (Suzy Song), Gary Farmer (Arnold Joseph), Tantoo Cardinal (Arlene Joseph); Runtime: 88; Miramax Films; 1998)
Smoke Signalswon the 1998 Sundance Festival film of the year.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Smoke Signalswon the 1998 Sundance Festival film of the year. It is a story of fatherly abuse and a reluctant friendship between children united by tragic circumstances. It is told in flashback mostly from the point of view of Victor (Adam), who feels that he is the wronged son of a father who deserted the family. He has an unpleasant disposition, which the filmmaker seems to indicate is because of the failed father-son relationship. All the main characters are Coeur d’ Alenes of Idaho. They offer a look into what the current indigenous people are thinking and saying to each other, and how life is on the reservation. There are many odd characters that add to our awareness of the Native American experiences on the reservation, who are both amusing and talkative.

Life on the reservation seems stale and confining; yet, everyone, at least, has some material comforts, as they all seem to live in a house and enjoy their fried bread.

The plot takes on its central theme of transformation when Victor learns that his father died in Arizona. He goes there with his most ardent admirer, Thomas (Evan), who volunteers to pay the expenses just so he can be with Victor to retrieve the body. Thomas is the gentle storyteller trying to grasp his Indian roots after being raised by his kindly grandmother; while Victor is the handsome athletic but asocial abused child, who has never come to terms with his father’s drinking or rejection of him and his mother.

Victor’s father, Arnold (Gary), rescued Thomas from the house Thomas’s parents died in, in a July 4th fire. Victor subsequently learns the fire was caused accidentally by his drunken father. Arnold could not reconcile this so he continued to drink and abuse his family, and finally took off for Arizona where he lived with Suzy Song (Irene), this wonderfully gracious soul.

Forgiveness for Victor’s father and renewed friendship with Thomas takes place when they bring his father’s ashes back home.

This is a film written, directed, and acted by Native Americans. It does not suffer from the usual clichés of Indian films, as it artfully weaves a story wavering between despair and comic acceptance of the Native American plight. It is only through the optimistic ending that the forgiveness of the son for his father and his altered relationship with Thomas, from scorn to healthy respect, can the film reassure us that this story has served as a metaphor for the hopes of the Native American people as they try to handle the injustices of their situation in a peaceful manner.

I recommend this film for its verve and very real passion it has for Native Americans, despite the triteness of its story and the fact that it offered no new insights into child abuse and it resolved the father-son relationship only posthumously. I mainly point this out since one of the major underlying themes of the film, was just that problem.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”