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Movie Review

Smoke Signals

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Rated PG-13 for some intense images. 1 hour, 29 minutes.
Publication date: Jun. 26, 1998
Review by Susan Tavernetti
Released: (1998)

The title conjures a powerful image of dark smoke rising in a clear sky, striking fear in the hearts of heroic pioneers wending their way westward or trying to survive on the American frontier. Only drum beats break the silence. Cut to a scene of horror and chaos as bloodthirsty savages, whooping and screaming, swoop down on the innocent settlers eager to burn homesteads, take white women, and add more scalps to their collections. For almost a 100 years, the Hollywood film industry has perpetuated this negative stereotype of the wild Indian, a portrayal permeating our cultural consciousness and only recently improved in revisionist Westerns such as "Dances With Wolves." Native American voices, telling their own stories and depicting their own culture, have not been heard.
 

 
Until now.
 

 
Novelist Sherman Alexie, a Coeur d'Alene/Spokane Indian, has adapted his short stories collected in "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" for the screen. He and director Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne, have brought the first film produced, written, directed and acted by Indians into widespread distribution.
 

 
"Smoke Signals" is a contemporary Western of sorts. Reversing Hollywood conventions, the drama centers on two young friends (Adam Beach and Evan Adams) who grew up on Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation and travel to Phoenix by Evergreen Stage, a bus, to pick up the remains of a father (Gary Farmer) who vanished a decade ago. Their journey is a quest to find and forgive absent fathers, and a search for identity and respect in a country with a long record of mistreating and misrepresenting Native Americans. Their smoke signals are cries for help.
 

 
Seeing a film by and about real Indians is refreshing. Although sometimes the attempt to break down stereotypes seems stilted and forced, more often the result is humorous. Unfortunately, Chris Eyre's direction establishes an uneven tone, allowing some actors to deliver performances bordering on broad caricature while others play their roles straight. Yet the film's opening and closing scenes beautifully combine poetic voice-overs with visual lyricism, and the transitions from present to past are seamless. One of the characters best verbalizes the hopeful note ending the movie, changing the often heard "It's a good day to die" to "It's a good day to be indigenous."