|Directed by||Chris Eyre|
|Screenplay by||Sherman Alexie|
|Based on||"This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" |
by Sherman Alexie
|Music by||B.C. Smith|
|Edited by||Brian Berdan|
Smoke Signals is a Canadian-American independent film released in 1998, directed and co-produced by Chris Eyre and with a screenplay by Sherman Alexie, based on the short story "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" from his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). The film won several awards and accolades, and was well received at numerous film festivals.
Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) live on the Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation in Plummer, Idaho. Thomas is an eccentric storyteller and Victor is an angry young man who enjoys playing basketball.
Victor and Thomas are brought together through Victor's father, Arnold (Gary Farmer). Arnold rescued Thomas as an infant from a house fire that killed his parents. Because of this, Thomas considers him a hero. On the other hand, Victor, who endures Arnold's alcoholism, domestic violence, and eventual child abandonment, regards his father with both deep love and bitter resentment. Thomas and Victor grow up together as neighbors and acquaintances, fighting with each other and simultaneously forming a close, albeit uneasy, friendship.
When Arnold dies in Phoenix, Arizona, where he has stayed after leaving Victor and his mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal), Victor and Thomas go on an adventure to retrieve his ashes. The trip is the means for Victor and Thomas to explore their identities. Neither of them loses sight of his identity as an "Indian", but their perspectives differ. Victor is more stoic and Thomas is more traditional (and romantic to the point of watching the feature film Dances with Wolves countless times). Their dichotomy is portrayed all through the film; it results in Victor being irritated with Thomas, and Thomas being fascinated with Victor.
Once they reach Phoenix, Victor has to confront his conflicted feelings about his father, as well as his own identity. He has to grapple with a new account of Thomas's parents' death, as told by his father's friend, Suzy Song (Irene Bedard). She says that a drunken Arnold set off fireworks, accidentally starting the fire that cost Thomas his parents. The road trip by the young men leads to Thomas reconciling with the memory of his adoptive father Arnold, as he understands more of his path to alcoholism and related abuse and abandonment. Victor also gains a better understanding of Thomas and his reverence for Arnold.
While it was not the first film created by native filmmakers in the US, Smoke Signals is recognized as being the first feature length film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans to reach a wide audience both in the US and abroad. This film is also notable for its authenticity with regard to its cast of Native American actors and actresses, and because it was filmed on location on the Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho.
The film was well received by mainstream critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives Smoke Signals an 83% approval rating based on 30 reviews, with an average rating of 7.31/10 and the consensus that the film "tells a familiar story from an underrepresented point of view, proving that a fresh perspective can help subvert long-established expectations." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 76 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle gave the film a rave review, calling it, "unpretentious, funny and soulful ... Well-acted, well-written, with spare, beautiful imagery." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times described Smoke Signals as "a warm film of friendship and reconciliation, and whenever it refers to historic injustices or contemporary issues in Native American culture, it does so with wry, glancing humor. Smoke Signals is indeed poignant, but above all it's pretty funny." Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle called the film "poignant and slyly humorous" and "alight with oddball nuances and wry observations," saying further, "the cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, and Eyre's persistent use of long, trailing shots reinforces the story's elegiac tone. Simple and elegant, Smoke Signals is a delicious, heady debut that lingers long after the tale is told."
Susan Tavernetti of the Palo Alto Weekly, gave the film a mixed review, saying that "although sometimes the attempt to break down stereotypes seems stilted and forced, more often the result is humorous." She also said, "Chris Eyre's direction establishes an uneven tone, allowing some actors to deliver performances bordering on broad caricature while others play their roles straight." She praised the opening and closing sequences which "beautifully combine poetic voice-overs with visual lyricism." Paul Bond of the World Socialist Web Site criticized Sherman Alexie's screenplay; he felt it was not as strong as the short story collection on which it was based. Bond also believed the producers of the film made compromises based upon commercial pressures.