"Remembrances of the Family Chief"
(Pa, B, FR, LL, V, AA, D, M) Pagan worldview with some moral elements including forgiveness & love as well as talk of magic; 16 obscenities & 6 profanities; mild violence including house burning with people dying inside implied, boys fist fighting, man hits woman, man strikes boy, & implied car crash; no sex; no nudity; alcohol use & abuse; smoking; and, image of corpse, anger, hostility, & dysfunction.
SMOKE SIGNALS is the first full-length feature film for major distribution starring, written and directed by an all American Indian cast and crew. Stoic, Victor travels with his goofy friend Thomas from Washington to Arizona to collect the remains of Victor's deceased father. Though winsome and insightful into the contemporary American Indian lifestyle, this obscure movie contains some obscenities, mild violence and some magical elements.
Winner of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy, SMOKE SIGNALS is the first full-length feature film for major distribution starring, written and directed by an all American Indian cast and crew. Though winsome and insightful into the contemporary American Indian lifestyle and condition, the movie will be hard pressed to find a crossover audience as it remains too obscure and uninvolving for general audiences.
Victor (Adam Beach) is a stoic, handsome young man who spends his days playing basketball at the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Washington State. His alcoholic father left him and his mother when Victor was only 13. Thomas (Evan Adams) is a gregarious, goofy young man who lost both his parents in a fire at a very young age. Through storytelling, Thomas makes great efforts to connect with people around him. Victor, in contrast, dislikes Thomas’ constant talking and uses his own quiet countenance to gain strength and confidence.
When Victor’s estranged father dies, Thomas offers to pay for a trip from Washington to Arizona where Victor can pick up the remains and take any possessions left. Initially reluctant to accept Thomas’ money, Victor agrees and they board a southbound bus. Along the way, Thomas tells many stories, they sing songs about John Wayne’s teeth, and face some cowboys who fight for the right to sit in a certain seat. On arrival, they meet a beautiful young woman named Suzy (Irene Bedard) who tells Victor about his father. Victor learns that his father wasn’t all bad and, in fact, had given up drinking. Suzy gives Victor a bucket of ashes, and, after a brief visit, Victor and Thomas leave for home again driving the truck that belonged to Victor’s father.
SMOKE SIGNALS is primarily about surviving and knowing who is an American Indian today. Throughout the movie, there are flashbacks of Victor and Thomas in their youth. Although Victor’s father drank and abused not only him but his mother, Victor and his father also played basketball with a duo of Jesuits. Victor’s father proclaimed, “At least for a brief moment, when it was the Indians vs. the Christians, the Indians won.”
Victor thinks that being stoic is the main goal of an Indian, and he gives Thomas advice on how to be stoic. Thomas thinks life should be savored and great events should be retold in the great oral traditions of Indian folklore, even if some of the stories have been embellished with lies. Some of the stories include tales of magic. In the end, Thomas gives a soliloquy about the necessity of forgiving our fathers for the sins they have committed.
From the movie we learn about the dangers of drunkenness on a reservation, the reaction that some Indians have to living on a reservation, the tenuous relationships that Indians have with their families, and the confusion that Indians have in their relations with white men. Although SMOKE SIGNALS is informative and insightful, the movie doesn’t grip the audience because it has no major question. The audience knows that Victor needs to collect his father, but doesn’t know what he must learn or if he needs to change. Almost retrospectively, we discover that Victor and Thomas need to work out their own differences, but there was no major reason to want their reconciliation in the first place.
As a people wrought with grief over losing their land and facing a continual struggle of poverty, drunkenness and other social ills, American Indians are in need of motion pictures that bring honor and integrity to their plights. SMOKE SIGNALS is a valiant effort. It doesn’t try to be politically correct, but it does demonstrate interesting characters and situations. However, without any real plot or major question, the story vanishes in a puff of smoke.