Touted as the first full-length feature film written, directed and co-produced by Native Americans, Smoke Signals is certainly the first movie in recent memory shot from the point of view of a Native American man. However, it's barely distinguishable from the seemingly endless reservoir of male coming-of-age films released each year. Although Smoke Signals attempts to illustrate the uniqueness of the father/son relationship among Native Americans, the central character is so superficially conceived that you never feel the force of his culture or ethnicity.
More a series of significant moments than a cohesive screenplay, Smoke Signals is the story of Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), who lives with his mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) on the Coer d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho. When Victor was an infant, several neighbors and friends were killed in a fire at the Joseph home after an Independence Day party. Arnold (Gary Farmer), Victor's father, ran into the flames to save Victor and another child, Thomas, but Arnold's guilt over the deaths-for which he was directly responsible-led to an alcohol dependency and an abusive relationship with Victor. When Arlene discovers the effect her husband's drinking is having on Victor, she gives Arnold an ultimatum. He leaves and he doesn't come back. When the film opens, Arlene receives a call from a neighbor of Arnold's in Phoenix-he's dead. The rest of the film is about Victor's journey, along with Thomas (Evan Adams), to collect his father's ashes.
The effect on sons of absent or abusive fathers has become a familiar theme in recent male coming-of-age films-Slingblade, The Hanging Garden, He Got Game. For Native Americans, whose cultural traditions were nearly eradicated by relocation, racial cleansing and genocide, and whose familial structure was often devastated by alcoholism, the father/son relationship carries special significance. In this sense, Smoke Signals speaks to the plight of Native American men, but it does so through a protagonist whose harshness fails to endear him to the audience; Victor is a cold, embittered young man when the movie begins. Chris Eyre's unfocused direction and Beach's performance compound the problem. Beach doesn't communicate the complicated emotions that arise after Arnold's death-Victor's love/hate relationship with his father, and the irony of having to bring his father home. These feelings are reduced to alternate bouts of brooding and abusive outbursts, usually directed at Thomas, whose inventive stories, much to Victor's indignation, celebrate Arnold's heroism and his larger-than-life image on the reservation.Smoke Signals at its best when Thomas, a wonderful, archetypal character-the storyteller-weaves truth and fiction into unusual tales that instruct and entertain. However, the film is edited badly-some of the ellipses are so jarring you have to remind yourself where you were in the last scene, and the story meanders so that even credible performances by Adams, Farmer and Irene Bedard (as Suzy Song, Arnold's neighbor) don't end up being as memorable as they should be. Eyre, whose directorial experience includes only short films, can't sustain the pace of a feature-length movie like this one. He handles the comedic scenes well-ones with inside 'Indian' jokes, and funny musical sequences like 'John Wayne's Teeth'-and the film has several poignant moments, but films are not built on moments. They're built on solid screenplays and accomplished direction, both of which are sorely lacking in Smoke Signals.
What is important and noteworthy about Smoke Signals is that it deals with the concerns of Native Americans, and it is imbued with the kind of good-natured, sometimes self-effacing wit and storytelling-evident in the scenes with Thomas-that anyone who has been around Native Americans will recognize. If you aren't familiar with Native American cultures, the movie will at least give you a sense of the difficult struggle indigenous people face in attempting to retain their racial and cultural identity in the face of so many obstacles.Smoke Signals delivers some welldeserved criticism of Native American stereotypes, too, pointing out the inaccuracies that result in even talking about Native Americans as a homogenous group.
Despite its considerable cinematic shortcomings, Smoke Signals at least indicates that Native American men face some of the same conflicts other American men confront, that these comingof-age stories transcend cultural differences. While that kind of pandering to popular taste may appear racist-making a film accessible through thematic resemblances to the 'white' experience-Smoke Signals has the potential to break the 'color' line for Native American filmmakers. That would make it a very significant movie.