By Stephanie Zacharek
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Smoke Signals is a rare drama about modern life on an Indian reservation that, unlike Hollywood fare such as Dances With Wolves, has been written and directed by Native Americans. It's a film that feels genuine and heartfelt--it understands the problems its characters are experiencing. It's often a quirky, whimsical movie, too, and it packs a solid emotional punch that also proves to be the film's undoing. Smoke Signals is so desperate to be a sentimental and an emotional experience for its audience that it tosses its initial promise of intelligence and substance out the window.
Written by celebrated Native American poet/author Sherman Alexie and directed by first-timer Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals is quick to squash any doubts about the filmmakers' roots; at the film's beginning, a radio DJ is heard shouting, "It's a great day to be indigenous!" Things soon look even brighter when we realize no pretty white boy will be riding into the reservation to learn and teach appropriate cultural lessons. The plot focuses on Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), a twentysomething slacker whose drunken, sometimes abusive father Arnold (Gary Farmer from Dead Man) left him and his mother on an Idaho reservation when he was just a young boy.
Victor has never left the reservation: He spends his days shooting hoops with his pals, he doesn't work, and he has no cash. He defends his lack of achievement saying he has to take care of his mother. Everyone knows his mom (Tantoo Cardinal from Dances With Wolves)--she's said to cook the best fried bread on the reservation--and her fine health and independence make Victor's claim absurd.
When word comes that Arnold has passed away, Victor and his buddy Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), a gawky daydreamer who loves telling mythical Native American stories and is obsessed with Dances With Wolves, hop on a bus to Phoenix to collect the body. The journey becomes cathartic for Victor. He cries, meets a girl, sees visions of Dad and even takes advantage of a chance to become a hero.
Alexie and Eyre begin the film with an intriguing opening sequence that captures daily life on a very eccentric Idaho reservation. A young woman dressed in hippie garb drives a car that only moves in reverse. In a flashback, Victor's father rants protractedly to his son about white devils. And Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his stories quickly infuse the film with a sense of magic realism.
Alexie and Eyre should have trusted these early scenes more. Capturing this specific lifestyle--so removed from the rest of American society--would have provided enough drama and characters to carry two or three films. But the filmmakers instead created a "major quest" for the lead character--and it feels forced. Victor needs to find out what happened to his father--why he really left the reservation, whether he was a good or bad guy. And the journey turns out not to be very compelling. When the film leaves the reservation, it loses its ingenuity. Newcomer Beach's performance is too weak to carry the film on his own. And Adams--memorable for his exaggerated happiness and contrived wide-eyed wonder--is one annoying sidekick.
The film's final sequences offer afterlife redemption for Arnold; Victor comes to forgive him. Victor and even Thomas Builds-the-Fire seem finally to have discovered the possibilities of life and are ready to improve their place in it. Having Victor reach an epiphany at the end of an obvious character arc is fine, but the filmmakers might have been more subtle about it. The film includes an ending of three heart-tugging sequences and a soundtrack that builds to such brute manipulative force that it threatens to let loose the entire audience's bodily functions.
It must be noted that Smoke Signals won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Past winners of the award include The Spitfire Grill and The Brothers McMullen. Like those films, Smoke Signals fronts as culturally serious cinema, but at the end, all it really wants to do is be loved.
Directed by Chris Eyre.
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