Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Smoke Signals (1998) – Sometimes It’s a Good Day to Have Breakfast

Written by Sherman Alexie
Directed by Chris Eyre

The headlines are filled with the virtues of the various blockbuster films out there.  For me, I prefer the sleeper films that come along with more impact than one might expect.  One of those was Smoke Signals.  It’s the story of a tenuous friendship, the ghosts of the past, and forgiveness and reconciliation are marvelously done.

Set on a Native American Reservation in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, it’s actually similar in many ways to a small town with its share of characters and quirkiness.  There’s a van broken down at an intersection since 1972 that is the source of the radio station’s “traffic reports”.  Two women drive around the reservation in reverse with no explanation as to why.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire (portrayed by Evan Adams) was saved as a baby from a fire that killed both of his parents.  Raised by his grandmother (portrayed by Monique Mojica), he grew up to be friends with the son of Arnold Joseph (portrayed by Gary Farmer), the man who caught him when he was thrown from the window of the house.  Victor Joseph (portrayed by Adam Beach) and Thomas share a life on the reservation in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that includes normal teenage things such as school and sports.  Thomas is a bit of a geek, while Victor tends toward being more of a jock.  See, even on a Native American reservation there are cliques.

Arnold Joseph left the family when Victor was young and hasn’t been heard from in years.  One day they receive a phone call that he passed away in Pheonix.  The family doesn’t have enough money for Victor to travel there and collect his remains and belongings.  Thomas offers to give Victor the money, as long as Victor takes him along.  After thinking about it, Victor agrees.

There are flashback scenes of Victor and his father – Arnold wasn’t the nicest man.  He thought nothing of hitting his son whether there was justification or not.  There was a lot of anger between Arnold and Victor.  Arnold drank and suffered for it.

However, Thomas has good memories.  There was the time he was waiting for a vision and Arnold found him and took him to Denny’s.  As they travel, Victor seems to be reflecting on the memories he has of his father which are negative, while Thomas recalls funny anecdotes.  There are funny moments when Victor tries to cultivate Thomas into his image of what a Native American is.  When Thomas counters Victor’s suggestion that he needs to look like he just came back from hunting a buffalo with the fact that their people were fishermen, Victor quips back “This ain’t dances with salmon.”

When they arrive in Phoenix, they meet up with Suzy Song (portrayed by Irene Bedard), who is a neighbor of Arnold ‘s.  She spent a lot of time with him, much of it listening to him.  They weren’t lovers; Suzy saw him as more of a father figure.  It is from her that he learns a truth about his father and what happened the night Thomas was saved.  It is only then that he ventures inside Arnold’s trailer.

There are many different stories running through Smoke Signals.  Victor needs to deal with the issues left behind by a father who vanished while Thomas and Victor have a friendship that is aggrieved by the societal pressures and expectations placed on them.  The story between them is sweet and is typical of a friendship that changes over the years and the friends drift apart.  The humor is subtle as well, like two friends cracking jokes to alleviate the tension and gravity of the situation at hand.

The acting is terrific.  It helps that the actors were virtual unknowns when this was made.  Both Adam Beach and Evan Adams have had some success since then, but here because they aren’t familiar it’s quite easy to see them as Victor and Thomas.  They are convincing as the jock and the nerd, both in their mannerisms and the way they carry themselves.  For Thomas in particular, it’s important as he’s more mature than Victor but doesn’t need to come off as too worldly and arrogant.  It helps that he hasn’t learned how to trigger his “shut-off switch” to know when it’s a good time to stay quiet as opposed to giving his input on a situation.

The setting is terrific and it’s filmed very well.  Whether capturing the bleakness and emptiness, physically, of the Native American reservation or the cluttered chaos of their bus ride, the atmosphere they are in sets the tone for a lot of what’s going on without either of them uttering a word.

Smoke Signals is a comedy, but it also contains some serious themes.  It’s a well-balanced film that was a pleasure to watch.  The acting was terrific and I’m glad to see the two lead actors have had some success since making this film.  It was a good film to watch without it being too sweet or predictable.

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