Smoke gets in your eyes

Smoke Signals drifts away into a haze of ham-fisted storytelling

Smoke Signals billows in from the Sundance Film Festival, noteworthy not simply because it won both the Audience Award and the Filmmaker's Trophy, but because it is the first feature film written, directed, and co-produced by American Indians to receive a major distribution deal. The buzz has kicked its screenwriter, Sherman Alexie, who already is a critically acclaimed poet and a best-selling novelist, onto the "it list" of the entertainment world. He now has a directing deal of his own for his screen adaptation of his latest novel, Indian Killer. And just like that, Alexie is being dubbed a potential Spike Lee of Indians--and apparently not just for his deft egocentric promotional skills, which have all but eclipsed Smoke Signals' first-time feature director Chris Eyre.

Despite the accolades at Sundance--or maybe it just explains them--Alexie and Eyre's adaptation of stories from Alexie's collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven proves ultimately too obvious, too calculated, too forced, and, at the end, too determinedly "meaningful" to offer a genuinely meaningful movie. That is a shame, for the glimpses of modern day Coeur d'Alene Indian attitude, culture, and day-to-day reservation life the film offers are filled with quirky delights and absorbing discoveries. But it seems the filmmakers became so lost in creating an encompassing story that they failed to recognize that these little moments make the movie memorable.

That encompassing story is the journey of two young men, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Victor is the hard-on-the-outside, tormented-on-the-inside naysayer, a guy who is stagnant as the world drifts by. Thomas is an Indian Urkel, a geek with big, square glasses, an even bigger and squarer grin, a tight-fitting three-piece suit, effeminate braids, and a singsong voice that can make the most innocuous inquiry irritating--and the simplest story magical. He is part mystical shaman, part goofy tool. But both are Indians through and through, so, as the film practically spells out for us, the journey will be spiritual as well as physical, for at least one of them.

The physical journey takes them from their reservation in Idaho to the trailer home of Victor's long estranged and now deceased father, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. The spiritual journey revolves around Victor as he comes to grips with his idea of home: his mixed memories of his father's drunken violence and loving compassion, and how his father saved Thomas from the house fire that orphaned him when the boys were infants.

Although always underlined with this heavy plot line, for most of the film the story rolls off like epigrams from Northern Exposure (which is only enhanced by the casting of actors from that show in bit roles). The reservation DJ, broadcasting out of the bedroom of a flimsy hut, fires off the Indian time and then cracks, "It's a good day to be indigenous," before calling on Lester FallsApart in the traffic van, broken down near the crossroads, who reports, "A couple of cars drove by earlier. Kimmy and James were in the green car. Looked like they were fighting. But ain't no traffic, really." Two girls drive through the reservation in an old Chevy that, apparently, only goes in reverse.

Likewise, the characters rarely openly preach about the plight of the Indian people. But they also never pass up the chance to poke either deadpan or offbeat self-deprecating digs at even the most marginal Indian stereotypes embedded in American pop culture. References to Custard and the Last of the Mohicans--or the last of just about any tribe--and Pocahontas' "big ol' Technicolor Disney boobs" abound. In one scene, Victor tells Thomas that he needs to shed his grin and dorky garb. "Indians ain't supposed to smile like that. Get stoic," he says before showing Thomas how it's done. While references to Dances With Wolves and lines such as "We're not the Lone Ranger and Tonto. We're Tonto and Tonto" roll off flat and obvious, there are plenty that zing. Victor's spontaneous powwow chant about John Wayne's teeth would be worth buying the soundtrack album--if it's on there. But the most biting line comes from Thomas, who notes while watching an old western, "You know, the only thing dumber than Indians on television is Indians sitting in front of a television."

The film is bound together around the oral tradition and the act of storytelling, and this is where the filmmakers shine. Key events unfold in a series of factually fuzzy flashbacks, usually narrated by Thomas, although Arnold Joseph's neighbor Suzy Song (wonderfully underplayed by Irene Bedards) gets some of the most critical ones. As the storyteller closes his eyes and begins to tell the story, the camera zooms in and then drifts away, and the words and images blend together to form a strange mixture of memory and magic. When told it is her turn to tell a story, Suzy asks, "You want me to tell the truth? Or do you want lies?" Thomas replies, "I want both."

Unfortunately, when the filmmakers are forced to do their own storytelling to bring the story to a climax in the third act, Smoke Signals falters. Early flashes of oddly forced conflicts, such as an encounter with rednecks on a bus, win out over richly detailed storytelling. The events play out overly designed and seem too hurried and random to pack any power. They lack gusto and guts. In the end, a film that ambled along to the personal beat of its own drum suddenly drops under the weight of worldly symbolism, poetry, and Zen-like philosophy to form a mush that taints the entire experience. Deep thoughts don't make deep films. Worse, characters that once delivered simple stories with subtle meanings end up shouting deep ideas into their navels.

Hmm...lack of subtlety? Maybe Sherman Alexie could be the Spike Lee of Indians.

Smoke Signals.
Directed by Chris Eyre. Written by Sherman Alexie. Starring Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard. Opens Friday.

 
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