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Movie of the Week: Smoke Signals (1998)

*****

We all love indie movies, right? Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and the like. And of course, there is the iconic Napoleon Dynamite. But all (or just about all) of these films were made within the last decade. What about before the Indie movement? When small-studio films didn’t get any attention? I’d like to take you back to the 1990’s (1998, to be exact), to show you a film that existed before Juno got pregnant; before Olive went across the country to go to a beauty pageant; before Napoleon won Pedro the election with that iconic dance. One of the original indie films: Smoke Signals.

Imagine Napoleon Dynamite on an Indian reservation, and you’ve got Smoke Signals, the story of two Coeur D’Alene Indian boys who have seen very different walks of life, even for living in such a small community. When they get word that one of the boys’  estranged father has died, they embark on an awkward (but often hilarious) life-changing journey in the form of a good old-fashioned road trip.

Really, this film and Napoleon Dynamite have quite a lot in common. Both are defined by their incredibly dry humor, memorable characters, and quirky story and development. But while Napoleon Dynamite was a relatable reflection on the politics of an everyday high school, Smoke Signals is a serious reflection on family trauma and self-realization, with a bunch of heavy questions and statements along the way. Is this film funnier? Debatable. Is it better? I would definitely say so.

The two boys, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) are both impressive and distinct characters, and are acted to a tee as such. While Thomas is blissfully obtuse, telling elaborate stories with his eyes shut and wearing a tacky suit with long black braids,  Victor is a brooding, serious, abrasive teen, constantly walking around with a chip on his shoulder. But while their types seem fairly typical for their age group, below them lies an examination of emotional structure and how it is built overtime. Does this sound like a classroom lecture so far? Probably. But that is definitely not how this film plays out. The acting is so offbeat, so wonderfully fresh, that every time you see the film, it’s like meeting the characters for the first time.

The heart-wrenching truth of the writing is part of the enormous impact here. Victor’s emotional turmoil comes from the abuse and abandonment of his father. That much is obvious after only a few minutes. But actually seeing the trauma unfold in flashback sequences (which are cut beautifully, by the way) is truly hard to watch. Victor’s dad is an abusive alcoholic, and yet when he actually does walk out on the family, Victor cannot stomach the grief. He never finds a way to deal with it. So when Thomas starts to rant and spew musings about Victor’s dad, as if he knew him so well, Victor lashes out. He has nowhere to go with his anger… until his father dies. Then it begins: a road trip with Thomas that will end with different boys.

Victor’s journey to finding out where his father ended up is one to behold, with a lot of change along the way. Thomas’s stories are annoying to Victor, and full of supposed inconsistencies, but every one has some sort of point, some reason that he tells it. They help him understand the world and how it changes around him.

There are a lot of scenes where Thomas and Victor discuss what it means to be a real Indian. Both have vastly different ideas. Victor is of the opinion that you must be cold, stoic, and brooding, like his father. But Thomas believes that it’s about embracing your heritage, who you are, that being an Indian is much less about how other people label you, but who you truly are. In these scenes, we see a real poignancy in which these boys ask themselves not only what it means to be an Indian, but what it means to be a man, a human. But at the same time, we also see the struggle that is going on inside both of the boys. The fact of the matter is, neither of them really know what a real Indian is supposed to be. That makes their ideology muddled; if they don’t know who they are supposed to be, then they will have a hard time figuring out who they are. That causes some very visible conflict, and this statement on young people’s reliance on social norms also adds to the richness of the characters.

Of course, we cannot do a review without talking about a couple of key bits. For example, the script, penned by Sherman Alexie, pretty much speaks for itself in its humanity, razor-sharp humor and well-rounded and complex characters. But even a good script can be ruined by poor direction. But you need not worry here, because director Chris Eyre , also a Native American, knows how to handle these characters with a good balance of sensitivity and humor, while also handling their story with respect and insight.  The score by BC Smith is fitting to the film, but in truth, is not that memorable. That may well be the film’s only flaw. Near the end of the film, however, Jim Boyd’s song, “Farther and Farther,” is heard, with lyrics that illustrate the powerful themes of father-son relationships that are explored here (the song is taken directly from a poem which is also written by Alexie, so it is apt to use it).

All-in-all, I have had a hard time finding flaw with this one. Whip-smart, funny and very deeply moving, Smoke Signals is an adventure of the spirit, and an insight into the relationships between generations, as well as a beautiful illustration of the personal battles that we all have to fight every day. Be ready to laugh, be ready to think, and be ready to cry, even up until the film’s final breathtaking scene. Smoke Signals gets a five out of five, and earns it well.

 

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About Errol Teichert

A young filmmaker, a budding playwright, and a freelance critic.

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