Stylish ‘Signals’ a Bittersweet Comedy About Friendship
On the eve of July 4, 1976, a couple on Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation celebrate the bicentennial of the white man’s independence with a lively party that ends in tragedy when their home catches fire, costing them their lives. Their baby boy, however, gets tossed out an upstairs window. Catching it is burly Arnold Joseph, and the boy, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, grows up with Arnold’s son Victor.
This tragic incident sets in motion “Smoke Signals,” a bittersweet comedy said to be the first full-length feature film written, directed and co-produced by American Indians. It is unlike most other films about Native Americans in that it is neither earnest nor indignant.
Instead, it is 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, far more coherent and stylish than the overrated “‘Powwow Highway” of nearly a decade ago.
Director Chris Eyre and writer Sherman Alexie, drawing from a collection of Alexie’s short stories, are sly, laid-back storytellers as they initially cut back and forth between 1988 and the present. When Victor and Thomas are 12--played at that age by Cody Lightning and Simon Baker, respectively--Victor’s alcoholic father (Gary Farmer, who was the best thing about “Powwow”) leaves home when his wife, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal), stands up to him decisively. Now 10 years later, Arlene receives word that Arnold has died of a heart attack in his trailer home in the desert outside Phoenix.
The right thing to do is for Victor (Adam Beach) to go to Arizona to settle his father’s affairs and bring back his ashes, but he can’t afford to go without the financial aid of Thomas (Evan Adams), who in return insists on going along. They have grown into very different young men. Victor is proud, handsome and cynical, whereas Thomas, raised by his grandmother, is a nerdy, nonstop talker who actually wears a suit.
Thomas, who is nice-looking once Victor gets him to change his look--and to shut up sometimes, too--is also exceedingly witty, bright and resourceful. He’s such a skilled teller of outrageous tall tales that he charms some young women into giving Victor and him a lift. One of them reacts to hilarious effect when she dryly remarks, “That’s a fine example of the oral tradition.”
The journey affords the opportunity for the kind of give-and-take that strengthens the young men’s friendship and matures them both in the process. The filmmakers are concerned further with the need for reconciliation between father and son and, beyond that, reconciliation with tradition and nature. For Victor had been bitter about his father, his drinking and ultimate abandonment of his family. When he and Thomas arrive in Phoenix, what they learn about Arnold is wholly unexpected and jolting, and inevitably transforming.
Beach, so impressive in the title role of “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale,” has a Matt Damon-Ben Affleck kind of charisma, and Adams is a nervy comedian. They are very skilled actors, and you could scarcely get stronger support than from Cardinal and Farmer, who are among the most renowned North American Indian actors. Irene Bedard stands out as a kindly young woman who looked in on Arnold near the end of his life. Tom Skerritt turns up in a cameo as a canny cop.
There is a most inviting and unpretentious yet sophisticated look and feel to “Smoke Signals,” and contributing crucially to its expressing its shifting moods are cameraman Brian Capener’s easy flow of images and composer B.C. Smith, who blended traditional Native American drums and flutes with classical, rock, blues and country music.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some intense images. Times guidelines: The film opens with a fatal house fire too intense for the very young.
Adam Beach: Victor Joseph
Evan Adams: Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Irene Bedard: Suzy Song
Gary Farmer: Arnold Joseph
Tantoo Cardinal: Arlene Joseph
A Miramax Films presentation of a ShadowCatcher Entertainment production in association with Sherman Alexie. Director Chris Eyre. Producers Larry Estes and Scott Rosenfelt. Executive producers David Skinner and Carl Bressler. Screenplay by Sherman Alexie; based on stories from his book “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Cinematographer Brian Capener. Editor Brian Berdan. Costumes Ron Leamon. Music B.C. Smith. Production designer Charles Armstrong. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
* At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.