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Film review: Smoke Signals

American Indian film illuminates human emotions

Published: Monday, July 28 2003 2:10 p.m. MDT

There are many messages audiences could take away from the quirky, low-key drama "Smoke Signals," but perhaps the most obvious and most important one is that American Indians are real people, too.

The characters in American Indian filmmaker Chris Eyre's feature-length debut feel strong emotions and have their share of faults, not the least of which is alcoholism and tendencies toward spousal and child abuse.

Of course, that doesn't really come as a revelation. However, since Hollywood filmmakers have created negative on-screen depictions of American Indians for decades, this movie's attempt to show its characters as flawed human beings is admirable, if not a delight to watch.

Based on four of the stories from Sherman Alexie's collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," this smart, well-acted drama follows two young American Indian men, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and oddball storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), on a journey from the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation to Phoenix, as they attempt to recover the remains of Victor's estranged father, Arnold (Gary Farmer).

Both men have their reasons to go on the trip. For Victor, it's an effort to reconcile his feelings for his father, whom he hasn't seen for 10 years. Thomas also has strong ties to Arnold, who saved him from a fiery death when he was a baby.

The two spend much of the journey bickering about what it means to be "a real Indian," and when they finally reach their destination, they find more than they bargained for — some shocking, longtime secrets that Arnold shared with his beautiful next-door neighbor, Suzy Song (Irene Bedard, the voice behind Disney's "Pocahontas").

For a newcomer, Eyre shows surprising confidence behind the camera and never lets scenes bog down in sentimentality. The film also has a beautiful circular structure, from its mysterious, somewhat mystical beginning to its touching, almost poetic conclusion.

And the screenplay nicely captures the whimsical, irreverent air of Alexie's prose — it helps that the novelist wrote the adaptation himself.

The movie also benefits from excellent performances from relative unknowns Beach and Adams, as well as veteran character actors Farmer and Tantoo Cardinal. All of them use subtlety and charm to convey their individual character traits.

"Smoke Signals" is rated PG-13 for profanity, violent slapping and emotional abuse and use of racial epithets.

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