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Smoke Signals laughs and cries Native-American style

Smoke Signals is a rare drama about modern life on an Indian reservation that, unlike Hollywood fare such as Dances with Wolves, has been written and directed by Native Americans. It's a film that feels genuine and heartfelt -- it understands the problems its characters are experiencing. It's often a quirky, whimsical movie too, and it packs the perfect emotional punch needed to win over audiences looking for a slice of "arty" cinematic life to bring a tear to their eyes. And that, ultimately, is what's so cloying about the film. Smoke Signals is so desperate to be a sentimental and emotional experience for its audience that it tosses its initial promise of intelligence and substance out the window.

Written by respected Native American poet/author Sherman Alexie and directed by first-timer Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals is quick to squash any doubts about the filmmakers' roots; at the film's beginning, a radio DJ is heard shouting, "It's a great day to be indigenous!" Things look even brighter after a few minutes, when we realize no pretty white boy will be riding into the reservation to learn and teach appropriate cultural lessons. The plot keeps its focus on Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), a twentysomething who's had a chip on his shoulder ever since his drunken, occasionally abusive father, Arnold (Gary Farmer from Dead Man), left him and his mother on an Idaho reservation when he was just a young boy.

Victor has never left the reservation: He spends his days shooting hoops with his pals, he doesn't work and he has no cash. He defends his lack of mobility by declaring that he has to take care of his mother. Everyone knows his mom (Tantoo Cardinal from Dances with Wolves) -- she's said to cook the best fried bread on the reservation -- and her fine health and independence make Victor's claim unbelievable.

When word comes that Arnold has passed away, Victor and his buddy Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) -- a gawky daydreamer who loves telling mythical Native American stories and is actually so obsessed with Dances with Wolves he's watched it almost a hundred times -- hop on a bus to Phoenix to collect the body. The journey, of course, becomes cathartic for Victor. He cries, he meets a girl, he sees visions of Dad and he even takes advantage of a chance to become a hero.

Alexie and Eyre begin the film with an intriguing opening sequence that captures daily life on a very eccentric Idaho reservation. One young woman, dressed in hippie garb, drives a car that only moves in reverse. In a flashback, Victor's father rants to his son about white devils for an extended period of time. And the introduction of Builds-the-Fire, whose stories conjure up magical vision in his listeners, offers the filmmakers a chance to infuse the film with magic realism.

Alexie and Eyre should have trusted these early scenes more. Capturing this specific lifestyle -- so removed from the rest of American society (and completely ignored in film) -- would have provided plenty of little dramas and potent characters to carry two or three films. The filmmakers, however, have created a "major quest" for the lead character to go on -- and it feels forced. Victor needs to find out what became of his father -- why he really left the reservation, or even if he was a good or bad guy. This journey, simply, is not very compelling. We've seen many independent and studio films with similar plots, and newcomer Beach's performance is too weak to carry the film on his own. (And Adams -- memorable for his exaggerated happiness and contrived, wide-eyed wonder -- is one annoying sidekick.) When the film leaves the reservation, it loses its ingenuity.

The film's final sequences offer afterlife redemption for Arnold; Victor comes to forgive him. It's implied that Victor and even Builds-the Fire have finally discovered the possibilities of life and are ready to improve their place in it. Having Victor reach the light at the end of an obvious character arc is fine, but the filmmakers could have been more subtle about it. The film includes three heart-tugging endings and a soundtrack that builds to such brute manipulative force that you may lose control of all bodily functions.

It must be noted that Smoke Signals won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Past winners of the award include The Spitfire Grill and The Brothers McMullen. Like those films, Smoke Signals fronts as culturally serious cinema, but at the end, all it really wants to do is be loved.

Smoke Signals.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Chris Eyre. With Adam Beach and Evan Adams.

 
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