Billed as the first commercial film written, directed and co-produced by American Indians, Smoke Signals could be a sign of the truth-telling breakthrough they have deserved ever since John Wayne's cavalry undertook to slaughter the "savages," Jay Silverheels played sidekick, and Jeff Chandler was cast as Cochise. With the possible exception of blacks, no ethnic group has been so crassly or cruelly stereotyped by Hollywood, so it's high time Native America finally got its own voices and visions into the movies.
Two men for the job--to do what Spike Lee did for black pride, Woody Allen for urban neurosis--are Sherman Alexie, a 31-year-old poet and novelist who's a member of the Spokane tribe, and Chris Eyre, 28, a Cheyenne-Arapaho late of New York University's heralded film school, who until now has directed shorts and documentaries. Working with a script synthesizing four stories from Alexie's wry 1993 collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, they have fashioned a combination comic road movie, family saga and cultural revelation that may be modest (budget: $1.7 million) but is never meek. It wises off more often than it gets profound and, despite a couple of narrative lapses, sails along on a nice mixture of loose-limbed wit and serious rumination.
The protagonists, a pair of mismatched dudes verging into manhood, manage to think about car repair as well as the mysticism of their tribal elders. Between shooting hoops and chowing down at Denny's, they contemplate warrior traditions. Hilariously, they debate the merits of Dances With Wolves; gravely, the power of family. They make a journey that begins on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho, heading south to retrieve a dead man's ashes, and wind up learning about the important things inside themselves and each other.
Smoke Signals' unlikely traveling companions are Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), a traumatized stoic whose estranged father has just died in Phoenix after ten years' absence, and chirpy, bespectacled Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), whose rambling stories encompass fact and fantasy, grim reality and whimsical embellishment--not unlike the stories of Sherman Alexie himself. Silent warrior and irrepressible chatterer, Victor and Thomas personify two extremes of response to reservation life and to the world beyond, which barely knows they exist. In its best (quite often its most humorous) moments, the film works toward reconciling this oddest of odd couples, showing them--and us--more of what connects than what divides them.
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En route, the buddies bicker but manage to bond (there's a time-honored movie tradition for you), and in the end, they discover an uncomfortable truth that will change both of them forever. Neither Beach nor Adams is an actor many have seen before, but both make a lasting impression through the sweet gravity of their quest for self. Audiences at Sundance agreed: Smoke Signals, which started as a short and later got financing in Seattle for a reshoot as a feature, won two major awards at this year's festival. The supporting players are equally effective: They include Gary Farmer as Victor's mysterious father, recalled in flashback; Tantoo Cardinal as his mother, Arlene, and Irene Bedard as lovely Suzy Song, who provides some momentary illumination amid Victor and Thomas's bittersweet journey of discovery.
Despite the quality of this vivid dual portrait, it would be hazardous to predict that Messrs. Alexie and Eyre will fuel a major outburst of Red Power in the movie business. While looking for seed money, the filmmakers report, more than one potential backer suggested that their story would be just great--if only the characters were white. But Miramax Films' ultra-canny Weinstein Brothers, who picked up the finished picture for just $3 million, are no strangers to the cutting edge. They are the same guys who brought you dark-horse hits like Emma, Trainspotting and Good Will Hunting, so don't count them out when it comes to accurately reading the horizon. But even if the kind of industrial revolution Spike Lee fomented a decade ago in Hollywood doesn't happen for Native America, don't expect these gifted moviemakers to get discouraged. They've got too much talent, and their ancestors may be counting on them.
Screenplay by Sherman Alexie, from his collection of stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Directed by Chris Eyre. With Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard and Gary Farmer.