Fire and water and home are very different concepts in the imaginings of the white men whose forbears took it all away from them.
"Smoke Signals" is the work of a multitribal group of Native Americans working under the direction of Chris Eyre, a 28-year-old Cheyenne/Arapaho. Avoiding the white man's guilty approach to the poverty of the Indian reservation, they tell a story about family and friendship. This film is about people, not their condition.
The young filmmakers reject cliche, and manage to laugh lightly at themselves. They serve up a marvelous scene of a traffic/weather specialist sitting atop the roof of his jalopy as he stares at an empty highway and reports on the nothingness of it to the reservation radio station. It shows a lighthearted acceptance of the battered condition of their surroundings.
The movie opens on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho on the Fourth of July, 1976, where a celebration has ended with a drunken Arnold Joseph (Adam Beach) setting fire to his own house in a lurching alcoholic mistake. Arnold manages to save the baby, Thomas (Evan Adams), whose parents have died in the fire he has caused. Arnold handles the tragedy by leaving his wife (Tantoo Cardinal) and young son Victor (Adam Beach) to head for New Mexico and the sanctuary of forgetting.
Victor and Thomas, the two boys who survived the fire, have little in common when they grow up until they are united after Victor learns his father has died. Thomas lends Victor the money for the trip to New Mexico to retrieve his father's ashes. Victor will bring his father home. The catch: Thomas insists on going along.
Victor drives, Thomas talks. Thomas is a teller of tales with morals, a wee bit of truth, and a whole lot of artistic license. He uses his stories to get to know people, usually exasperating them in the process. Repeatedly he tries to reassure Victor with kindly, brave stories about the father Victor remembers only as an abusive drunk.
Arriving at the trailer campground, they meet Suzy Song (Irene Bedard), a young woman who had befriended the sorrowful father during his last years. Suzy and Thomas do their best to comfort the defiant Victor, who is still carrying a bewildering mix of anger and love.
Evan Adams's Thomas wears braids, glasses, and an ever present smile that conceals his emotions. We listen hard to his constant talk, searching for the person inside the odd exterior. Adam Beach's Victor is strong, but troubled, as he struggles to do right by the man who did not do right by him. Tantoo Cardinal brings her star power to the story with great restraint in a role that says everything about acceptance.
This movie is a first effort with rough edges; it is also a stunning promise of future films. It is revealing and rewarding to hear from an entirely Native American company about the symbolic elements of their heritage. Fire and water and home are very different concepts in the imaginings of the white men whose forbears took it all away from them.
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