Smoke Signals [1998]

Director: Chris Eyre
Stars: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Runtime: 89 minutes

Based on a couple of short stories (from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) by Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals is a lean and assured feature that speaks well of its lengthy, rich evolution, including a development stint at Sundance. The first feature made by a Native American crew and creative team, the film concerns two young Idaho men with radically different memories of one Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), a former resident of the reservation who split years before and has just died in Phoenix. Arnold's strapping, popular son, Victor (Adam Beach), remembers him best as an alcoholic, occasionally abusive father who drove off one day and never came back. By contrast, Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), whom Arnold had saved from certain death years earlier, has chosen to exaggerate the man's life and deeds in a mythmaking fashion that drives Victor crazy. Circumstances bring the two together, however, in a bus ride to retrieve Arnold's ashes. There, in Phoenix, a confrontation with the reality of the dead man's fullest legacy has a profound effect on both characters. Alexie, who wrote the script and was personally involved in all aspects of the production, and first-time director Chris Eyre are so polished in their approach that you can barely feel the cinematic engine at work here. This is the kind of movie in which the characters seem to be driving everything forward, a captivating and pleasant experience that gets a little too tidy at the end (can we call a moratorium on scenes of human ashes lovingly disposed to the winds?), but which is undeniably moving. The cast, including Irene Bedard (the voice of and physical inspiration for Disney's Pocahontas) is outstanding. --Tom Keogh

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