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(1998) (Adam Beach, Evan Adams) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Moderate Mild Heavy Mild None
Mild None Minor None Moderate
Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: Two young American Indian men set out to collect the ashes of one's recently deceased and estranged father, and the trip brings back haunting memories and new truths about the past for both of them.
Victor Joseph (ADAM BEACH) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (EVAN ADAMS) are two young American Indian men who've been on-again, off-again friends ever since a tragic event two decades earlier unexpectedly linked their lives together. It was then that a sudden fire killed Thomas' parents, with Victor's father, Arnold (GARY FARMER), saving their infant son's life. Never quite the same afterwards, Arnold took to drinking hard, and ten occasionally abusive years later, he forever left Victor (CODY LIGHTNING) and his wife, Arlene (TANTOO CARDINAL), on their Idaho reservation.

Now, Victor and his mother have received news that Arnold has died. Needing money to travel to Phoenix to pick up the cremated ashes, Victor reluctantly allows Thomas to pay for the bus fare. With Victor having become a bitter young man, and Thomas being a somewhat goofy oddball, their several day long trip tests their already strained friendship. Reliving memories of when he and young Thomas (SIMON BAKER) were just boys, Victor doesn't know how to sort out his new, but confused familial feelings. That's further complicated when he meets Suzy Song (IRENE BEDARD), a woman who was truly the last to know Arnold and the truth behind Victor's past. Her insight, however, eventually helps Victor come to grips with his own life.

Unless they're native American Indians or are interested in that culture and its people, this probably won't be high on most kids' "must see" list.
For some intense images.
  • ADAM BEACH plays an angry and bitter young man whose attitude has been shaped by his father's long-term absence and the fact that he's a native American Indian and must deal with a society he believes doesn't understand or trust him.
  • EVAN ADAMS plays a somewhat goofy, but intelligent young man with a happy disposition and a penchant for storytelling in the tradition of his ancestors.
  • GARY FARMER plays Victor's hard drinking and occasionally abusive father who one day simply left his family forever.
  • IRENE BEDARD plays a caring woman who wants to help Victor better understand his father


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    American Indian performers have never received many decent chances at starring in compelling roles or headlining Hollywood produced films. Mainly relegated to playing the dangerous savage in scores of "Cowboy and Indian" films throughout the decades, some decent supporting roles have occasionally arisen in more recent years.

    The films in which they appeared, however, were still headlined by "white" stars such as Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves," Dustin Hoffman in "Little Big Man," and more recently, Val Kilmer in "Thunderheart."

    Thus, it's nice to see a film made by, and headlined by a predominantly Native American cast and crew. As directed by Chris Eyre and written by Sherman Alexie (both American Indians), however, this is as much a tale about father/son relationships as it is about growing up as an American Indian on a reservation.

    What's most refreshing to see, though, is the even-keeled presentation that Eyre has delivered. While it's not all that surprising to note the absence of the typical reservation stereotypes found in many movies -- the poor, drunken and often gambling addicted Indians, etc... -- Eyre has smartly avoided the self-righteous, "now it's our turn" comeuppance approach.

    Although the main character is often indignant in his attitudes how he thinks others feel about him and American Indians overall, that's perfectly balanced by the rest of the cast and their more open- minded and accepting beliefs.

    In addition, Eyre isn't above poking some fun at life on the reservation. For instance, its small, low wattage radio station has a field reporter who delivers the daily local traffic report from a near chronically empty intersection ("A car just passed by...") as well as the current weather conditions (commenting on what sort of animal the lone cloud in the sky most closely resembles).

    It's the film's storytelling attributes, however, that really make the picture stand out. First time director Eyre demonstrates a well-taught, and possibly inherent grasp of the cinema and delivers many compelling and innovative shooting techniques. Most impressive are the scenes where characters from the past and present transitionally crisscross in the same setting, such as when Victor as a boy goes to exit through a door, and comes out as his adult self on the other side. Not only is it an interesting cinematic technique, but such effects also neatly tie together the main character's past to his present.

    Likewise, the scenes where Thomas tells his many stories -- both of fact and fiction -- are nicely done. Holding onto the long established tradition of storytelling, Thomas' stories -- as vividly told as they are -- don't always mesmerize the moviegoer as much as they do for whatever small audience of fictitious characters he can gather in any scene, but they're pleasantly told and often quite funny.

    It's actor Evan Adams as that goofy-looking storyteller, however, who completely steals the show. While the story may be about Victor and his familial problems, the Thomas character is a complete delight to watch. Speaking in some sort of odd accent that constantly reminded me of an Irish American Indian -- a feature that actually makes the character even that much more endearing -- Adams creates a completely likeable and thoroughly entertaining creation. For instance, when Thomas is told in one scene that he and his friend are heroes like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, he casually replies, "No, we're more like Tonto and Tonto."

    Adam Beach ("Squanto: A Warrior's Tale") is also good in his performance as the angry and troubled young man, although he's completely overshadowed by Adams and his character. Much of that's due to the obvious fact that audiences like charming and happy characters better than bitter and scowling ones, but Beach still manages to create a character who earns our sympathy as the story progresses.

    The rest of the performances are good, ranging from Gary Farmer as Victor's troubled, but distantly loving father, to Tantoo Cardinal ("Dances With Wolves") playing his concerned mother and Irene Bedard (voice of the title character in "Pocahontas") as the woman who finally educates Victor about his father, the past, and the long hidden truths concerning both.

    Although Eyre occasionally shows signs of this being his first feature length production, such as when the plot and its pacing get knocked off track toward the end of the film, for the most part it's an impressive debut. Featuring some decent direction, plenty of humor and some truly touching moments, this should be a major calling card for this talented young director and hopefully his cast and crew as well. We give "Smoke Signals" a 7 out of 10.

    While it's questionable how many kids will want to see this film, here's a quick look at the content. Seven "s" words and an assortment of others make up the profanity. We see several images of a burning house and know that Thomas' parents are inside. Bad attitudes abound as Victor is a bitter young man, but that's based on his father abandoning him and his mother after striking them on separate occasions (and he learns that his father has died and must deal with his conflicting emotions).

    In a flashback, we also see Victor's parents drinking and they appear to be drunk at the end of a party. Beyond that, many of the categories have little or no major objectionable material. Even so, you may want to look through the categories if you or someone else in your home wishes to see this film.

  • Arnold drinks a beer in his truck and later we see young Victor holding his beer for him. After his son accidentally spills the beer, Arnold opens another and drinks it.
  • In a flashback, we see Arnold and Arlene drinking beer (along with others at a party) and they appear to be drunk.
  • Thomas (as a kid) has a bloody nose after Victor beats him up.
  • Some people involved in a car crash have some bloody cuts on their heads.
  • Victor has some of both for being an angry and bitter young man (based on his father's long absence and abandonment of his family, and from being an Indian in an uncaring, often racist world).
  • Victor also has both toward Thomas as both kids and adults, thinking that his "friend" is weird and immature.
  • Arnold has both for not only occasionally striking his wife and son (we see one instance of each), but also for abandoning them for the rest of his life. We later learn, however, that he still deeply cared and was proud of his son.
  • Victor is condescending to a woman they meet on their bus trip.
  • Some older white men take Victor and Thomas' seats on the bus, won't give them up, and one of them tells them to go someplace else for their "powwow."
  • In a flashback, Arnold asks Suzy what's the worst thing she ever did to another person. She comments that many years earlier she stole an older woman's purse and took the money for herself. When pressed for something worse, she then comments that she once slept with her best friend's boyfriend.
  • We see several nighttime images of a house fully engulfed in flames, all of which is made even more unsettling by the fact that we're told Thomas' parents are somewhere inside.
  • During one of those scenes, Thomas (as an infant) is tossed through an upstairs window (hoping to get him to safety away from the fire) and Arnold races to catch the infant before he hits the ground.
  • Arguing while driving at night, the guys crash their truck while avoiding another car crash (and we see the somewhat bloodied "victims" of that).
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Shut up," "Suckers," "Geez," and "Idiot."
  • Two young women drive everywhere in their car -- backwards.
  • After Victor has taken what he wants from his father's trailer, Suzy sets it on fire and lets it burn.
  • None.
  • A few scenes have a minor bit of suspenseful music in them.
  • None.
  • At least 7 "s" words, 7 damns, 4 hells, 3 asses (with another possible one and one used with "hole"), and 1 use of "G-damn" (and another possible one) used as exclamations.
  • When asked by Arnold what's the worst thing she's ever done to another person, Suzy mentions that she once slept with her best friend's boyfriend in college.
  • Arlene smokes a few times.
  • Arnold occasionally strikes his son or wife (the latter of which his son also observes), and his drinking eventually causes enough problems that he simply abandons his family and never returns (as Arlene yells at him never to come back with Victor chasing after and trying to leave with his father).
  • Victor and his mother learn that Arnold has died and Victor travels to retrieve his ashes.
  • Even after his father's death, Victor must deal with his conflicting, but usually bitter feelings toward his father.
  • As an infant, Thomas lost both his parents in a fire and then lived with his grandmother.
  • Life on Indian reservations and how the rest of society treats the people who live on them.
  • Parent/child relationships and whether to forgive past abuses and problems.
  • Two people die in a burning house (not seen).
  • Arnold backhands Victor (as a kid) after he accidentally drops and spills his dad's beer.
  • Angry with his parents for being drunk, a young Victor throws and shatters empty beer bottles at the back of his father's truck.
  • Victor (as a kid) sees his father backhand his mother hard enough to knock her to the floor.
  • As kids and after Thomas asks why Victor's father left ("Does he hate you?"), Victor punches Thomas and then pummels him on the ground.
  • Some people are injured in a car crash (we see them afterwards).
  • After Victor has taken what he wants from his father's trailer, Suzy sets it on fire and lets it burn.

  • Reviewed June 19, 1998

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