Unlike Hollywood fare such as Dances with Wolves (1990), the new Smoke Signals is that rare drama about modern Native Americans that was actually written and directed by Native Americans. It feels genuine and heartfelt, quirky and whimsical, with a deft understanding of the characters' problems. But the film is also cloying, so desperate to be a sentimental and emotional experience for audiences that it tosses away its initial promise of intelligence and substance.
Written by respected Native American poet-novelist Sherman Alexie and directed by first-timer Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals is quick to quash any doubts about the filmmakers' roots; right off the bat a radio DJ is heard shouting, "It's a great day to be indigenous!" Things look even brighter a few minutes later when we realize that no pretty white boy will be riding up to the reservation to learn and teach appropriate cultural lessons. Instead, the plot concentrates on Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), a twentysomething who's had a chip on his shoulder ever since his drunken, occasionally abusive father Arnold (Gary Farmer, from Dead Man) left him and his mother on an Idaho reservation when he was a young boy.
Victor has never strayed from the reservation. He doesn't work; he has no cash. He spends his days shooting hoops with his pals and defends his decision to stay on the reservation by declaring that he has to take care of his mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal, from Dances with Wolves). Everyone knows her -- she's renowned for her fried bread -- and her obvious independence and fine health make Victor's claim insupportable.
When word comes that Arnold has died, Victor and his buddy Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), a gawky daydreamer who loves telling mythical Native American stories and is so obsessed with Dances with Wolves that he's seen it almost 100 times, hop on a bus to Phoenix to collect the body. The journey, of course, becomes cathartic for Victor. He cries, he meets a girl, he sees visions of Dad. He even seizes the chance to become a hero.
Alexie and Eyre should have trusted the sensibilities they showed in the film's early scenes of life on a very eccentric reservation. One young woman dressed in hippie garb drives a car that moves only in reverse. In a flashback, Victor's father rants to his son about white devils. And the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whose stories conjure magical visions in his listeners, offers the filmmakers a chance to infuse Smoke Signals with magic realism.
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Sticking with contemporary life on the reservation -- a place completely removed from the rest of American society (and virtually ignored in film) -- would have provided many little dramas and potent characters. The filmmakers, however, have created a "major quest" for their protagonist, and it feels contrived. Victor needs to find out what became of his father -- why he really left the reservation, whether he was a good or bad man. But Victor's journey is not very compelling; we've seen many similarly plotted independent and studio films. And newcomer Beach's performance is too weak to carry the film. (As for Adams -- memorable for his exaggerated happiness and wide-eyed wonder -- he ultimately makes for one annoying sidekick.) When the film leaves the reservation, it loses its ingenuity.
It should be noted that Smoke Signals won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The Brothers McMullen won the same award in 1995. Like that film, Smoke Signals fronts as culturally serious cinema, but in truth it really only wants to be loved.
Directed by Chris Eyre. Written by Sherman Alexie. Starring Adam Beach, Evan Adams, and Tantoo Cardinal.