"The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV," says Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) seeing an old western playing on a small set, "is Indians watching Indians on TV."
With that line, Thomas, whose incessant storytelling alternately fascinates and annoys his fellow residents of the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, sums up the irreverent seriousness of Smoke Signals. While exploring the complex nature of Indian identity, screenwriter Sherman Alexie and director Chris Eyre also revel in a particularly quick-witted brand of self-deprecating humor. The first widely distributed Indian-made film, Smoke Signals sidesteps the anticipated politically correct tale -- featuring stoic, vision quest-seeking Native Americans -- and cuts straight to the heart of contemporary Indian life. In Alexie's view, this world is built from equal parts resilience, humor and pain.
The handsome, brash and seemingly confident Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) is tied to the geeky, persistent Thomas by childhood tragedy: Thomas' parents died in a Fourth of July house fire, but baby Thomas was saved by Victor's father, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer). Victor and Thomas grew up almost like family, but differing temperaments kept them from ever really becoming friends.
Now in their early 20s, they are brought together by another tragedy: the death of Arnold, who nearly a decade earlier had abandoned his wife, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal), and young son. Victor and Thomas -- neither of whom has explored much beyond the boundaries of their Idaho reservation -- travel to Phoenix to claim Arnold, whose towering presence has risen anew in their lives.
Winner of both the Filmmaker's Trophy and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Smoke Signals is simply but elegantly filmed, with a keen eye to the emotional truths of the story. In addition, the filmmakers so expertly incorporate flashbacks of 12-year-old Victor and Thomas into the narrative that the past and present seem not only to co-exist, but comment on each other (a la John Sayles' Lone Star).
"It's a good day to be indigenous," the reservation disc jockey (John Trudell) says, a point that Smoke Signals wryly and wholeheartedly proves.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.