Indians come of age with wit and grace in 'Smoke Signals' Movie review

July 17, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Smoke Signals" may be the most delightfully quirky surprise of the summer, a shaggy-dog tale that from its opening moments the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation portrays the Native American legacy of pride and pain with deep emotion, grace and irreverence.

Fans of novelist Sherman Alexie will be gratified that the first feature adaptation of his work so faithfully captures his humor and poetic language. And movie fans in general will be thrilled to meet so many new voices and faces on this enchanting and unexpectedly affecting journey.

Evan Adams, in dorky glasses and braids, plays Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, a Coeur d'Alene Indian orphaned early in life when his parents died in a fire. Raised by Arnold and Arlene Joseph (Gary Farmer and Tantoo Cardinal), Thomas thinks of their son Victor (Adam Beach) as a brother, meaning they are by turns each other's best friend and worst nemesis.

Thomas, a dreamy, beatific young man, has grown into a storyteller who plies the people of the reservation with his hallucinatory narratives of their own lives. Victor, on the other hand, has grown into a bitter, cynical cool-cat, who became even more steely when the alcoholic Arnold abandoned him and his mother.

When Arnold dies suddenly of a heart attack in Phoenix, Victor must go claim his father's remains. But he has no money. Enter Thomas, who agrees to pay for the trip if he can go along. "Smoke Signals" takes most of its direction from this "Midnight Cowboy"-like set-up, wherein Thomas and Victor teach one another what it means to be an Indian and a man.

Make no mistake, "Smoke Signals," directed with flair by the promising Chris Eyre, travels in no straight lines. Thanks to Thomas' tale-spinning, the film takes wonderful twists and turns into his interior visions, layering the present and the past with graceful delicacy. "Smoke Signals" isn't just a coming-of-age vision quest with two teen-age protagonists, but an exploration of consciousness itself, as well as the ways the cinema can be used to express the myriad forms it can take.

Adam Beach resembles Matthew McConaughey with his classic features and dazzling smile, and he perfectly conveys the vanity of a young man who uses those attributes to cover a cruel heart.

And, much like Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy," Adams effectively steals the show as the ingratiating-infuriating Thomas, nerdy Scheherazade who can wax as eloquently and longwindedly on the virtues of frybread as on the complex dynamics between fathers and sons.

Although "Smoke Signals" is putatively about Victor's relationship with his father, Thomas is the true center of a film that at its most mythic level is about the importance of narrative in finding meaning in life.

Alexie injects a constant note of humor to the proceedings, directed both at white culture (Victor's speech to Thomas about appropriating the "Dances With Wolves" identity of quiet stoicism and serious hair rings with truth and hilarity) and at the foibles of Native American culture as well.

As enjoyable as Thomas and Victor are, the supporting characters of "Smoke Signals" are just as vivid, from a girl who drives her car in reverse to the radio announcer whose weather reports relay what animals the clouds look like.

The filmmakers have announced with understandable pride that "Smoke Signals" is the first Native American feature film, and Eyre and Alexie have created a terrific precedent for more Native American filmmakers to follow, both visually and narratively. "It's a good day to be indigenous," a radio DJ announces in "Smoke Signals." A good day, indeed.

'Smoke Signals'

Starring Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard

Directed by Chris Eyre

Released by Miramax Films

Rated PG-13 (intense images)

Running time 89 minutes

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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