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Tucson Weekly Native Talent

'Smoke Signals' Is A Refreshingly Un-Hollywood Production.

By Stacey Richter

JULY 20, 1998:  WITH ALL THE potential independently produced films have for telling the kinds of stories that are rarely heard in Hollywood (where the sound of monsters, guns and exploding planets tends to drown out the good dialogue), it's sometimes frustrating to find that so many independent films end up chronicling messy love relationships. So it's refreshing to find an original film like Smoke Signals, a quirky, inventive, road movie that bills itself as the first feature film written and directed by Native Americans.

Smoke Signals deals with themes of community, forgiveness, and identity in an ambitious, funny, and mostly successful way. Two friends, Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas (Evan Adams) live on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation and have known each other all their lives. Thomas lost his parents during a fire and Victor's dad, a well-meaning but deeply flawed guy, ends up inadvertently saving their infant son. The story flashes between this fiery origin story, a few boyhood vignettes, and a road trip Victor and Thomas take to Phoenix to pick up the ashes of Victor's father, who'd abandoned his family many years earlier.

This technique of zipping around in time may not be the most elegant way to construct a film, but the story that the film tells is complex and fascinating. The boyhood scenes of Victor and his father Arnold show a man who loves his son dearly but who is also clearly possessed by his own demons. One minute Arnold is happily telling stories to his son, taking pulls off his beer as they drive home; the next he's slapping the kid's head for knocking over a bottle. Victor responds by alternately showing love and rage for his magnetic, violent father.

By contrast, Thomas is growing up in a household calmly headed by his sweet grandmother.

Poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie wrote the screenplay for Smoke Signals (based on stories from his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), and you can hear the lilt of the poet in the dialogue. Characters in this movie have a tendency to burst into long, lyrical speeches that sound like poetry readings. This is a little distracting. Alexie puts his talents to better use when Thomas, an idiosyncratic young fellow in a Victorian-style suit and eighties eyeglasses, breaks into one of his many elaborate stories. He closes his eyes and, in vivid language, tells wildly embellished tales of his and Victor's youth. Not many films could sustain such an uncinematic device, but thanks to lively writing, in Smoke Signals it adds depth. As one of Thomas' listeners says, "Nice use of the oral tradition."

It's refreshing and a little disarming to see a film made from a script that doesn't follow the many established screenplay conventions. Even independent films usually have three acts, a climax near the end, and then a resolution. But Smoke Signals doesn't really build in this way. Subplots arise and then disappear quickly; conflicts arise out of nowhere and are quickly dispatched; weird little plot holes open up and close again. In some ways, this accounts for both the strengths and the weaknesses of this film. At times the tension between the buddies Victor and Thomas seemed overdramatic and forced. There's a completely hokey car accident vaguely precipitated by an argument that provides a hollow-feeling climax to the story, for example.

But at other times, this freedom from conventional form makes Smoke Signals especially powerful. The characters are allowed to linger on ideas that seem genuinely important to them: This isn't one of those movies where every little incident somehow ends up figuring into the plot. There's room for beautiful, disturbing scenes to fuel themselves, like the initial sequence of the burning house, or the final shot of white-water rapids, accompanied by a voice-over of Thomas musing on the meaning of forgiveness. It's a strange way to end a movie, but thanks to the wonderful writing, it's also quite powerful.

Things falter in Smoke Signals when it tries too hard to be like other movies. There's a little too much magic realism by way of Northern Exposure for my taste, and at times it seems that the friendship between Victor and Thomas is destined to go the way of the buddy movie. Really, must they be polar opposites? Must they hate each other for most of the movie only to affirm their love and connection at the end? Must Victor give Thomas a makeover? Maybe the answer is yes; maybe there still needs to be a little reused Hollywood stardust even in the most adventurous independent film. Hopefully by the time Alexie and director Chris Eyre make another film together, it won't be necessary.


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