Smoke Signals

When it comes to American Indians, Hollywood either trades in Injuntereotypes or dances with Disney. Forget that. Smoke Signals,ritten and directed by Indians, also casts Indians as Indians. "Notalians with long hair," says Sherman Alexie, 31, the Indian poet,ovelist and short-story writer who brings a scrappy new voice toovies with his first screenplay. And what a comic, profane and poeticoice it is. Alexie risks pissing off the PC cavalry as he explores theumor and heartbreak of being young and Indian and living on aeservation ("the rez") at the end of the twentieth century.

The road-movie plot springs from several stories in Alexie's collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), on-and-off friends since childhood and both now twenty-two, leave theoeur d'Alenene rez in Idaho by bus and head for Phoenix to collect theshes of Victor's father, Arnold, hauntingly played by Gary Farmer.ictor can't forgive the abusive, alcoholic Arnold for deserting himnd his mother (Tantoo Cardinal) ten years before, Thomas can't forgetow Arnold saved his life as an infant in a fire at home that killed Thomas' parents.

Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre, a twenty-eight-year-old maker ofhort films in a striking feature debut, shows a keen eye for dailyife on the rez. There are droll radio reports on weather ("It's a gooday to be indigenous") and traffic ("Big truck just went by. Now it'sone"), Alexie knows the value of wit in deflecting an often stiflingxistence that eats away at self-esteem, family life and tribalraditions.

The contentious friendship of Victor and Thomas constitutes the core ofhe story. Well-placed flashbacks indicate how Thomas' knack forlurting out his thoughts has goaded Victor since childhood. "Hey,ictor," says the twelve-year-old Thomas after learning that Arnold hasalked out on his family. "Your father left. What happened? Does heate you?" Victor decks him for that one. He even tries verbalssaults. "I was wondering, Thomas," says Victor. "What color do youhink your mother and father were when they burned up?" But Thomas,erpetually chirping, "Hey, Victor . . .," will not be dissuaded fromuestioning his friend on any subject that strikes him.

verything about the smiling Thomas, with his geeky glasses, braids and nonstop storytelling, irritates Victor. On the bus to Phoenix, Victorries to teach Thomas that being an Indian is not something you learnrom watching Dances With Wolves. The point is to strike fearn the white man. "First, quit grinning like a idiot and get stoic,"ays Victor. "You've gotta look like you've just come back from killing buffalo."

Thomas' transformation leads to a devastating encounter with twoowboys on the bus. "Find somewhere else to have a powwow," say theowboys, who have stolen Victor and Thomas' seats. The Indians find neweats in order to avoid a fight, then try to retaliate by making up annsulting song about John Wayne's teeth. The scene shows just howoreign and hostile a country America can be to an Indian off the rez.

Beach and Adams give remarkable performances that grow in feeling andntensity. In Phoenix, Victor and Thomas meet Suzy Song (a tough anduminous Irene Bedard), the young woman who befriended Arnold and foundis body. "We kept each other's secrets," Suzy tells Victor, though sheoes reveal one confidence that makes Victor see his father in a newight.

Smoke Signals doesn't pretend to solve the mystery betweenarents and children, or the clash between cultures that leaves Victoro angry and Thomas so eager to find stories that can heal wounds. None listens to Thomas' stories. The same fate will not befall Alexie, who has crafted one of the best films of the year by finding himself in both Victor and Thomas and building something that will last.

From The Archives Issue 790: July 9, 1998