September 20, 1998 -- "Smoke Signals," the opening show of the Gladys Crane Mountain Film Festival, proved itself a worthy opening act for any film festival.
The first commercial movie ever to be written, directed and produced by Native Americans, it is a warmhearted meditation on the nature of the relationships between fathers and sons. Moving and funny, the film is a road show that slides gently through the heartland of America.
Starring Adam Beach as the troubled young Coeur d' Alene Indian named Victor Joseph and Evan Adams as his philosophical friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, it is a story what these two young men discover on a journey from northern Idaho to New Mexico to recover the effects of Victor's father, who recently died.
The two stars are the kind of people who draw no notice in our society. It is unusual for their stories to be told. Thomas is a chatterbox, a dreamer, a storyteller and a fragile soul, while Victor, wounded by the fact his father left him and his mother when he was young, is sullen and angry. They are poor and they live in a third world country, an Indian reservation in Idaho.
During their journey, we see the story of their lives told in flashback. We learn a little about Indian culture and more about events that tie the two young men together. At the beginning, Victor has disdain for Thomas and tolerates his presence only because it is his money that finances the trip. By the end of their journey, however, Victor begins to appreciate the wisdom of Thomas.
Their wide-ranging discussions about life on the reservation, the Rez, as they call it, fry bread, and the pervasiveness of the corporate American culture (including John Wayne's teeth) are fascinating and funny. They have things to teach us and they have things to learn. Victor learns about his father and comes to terms with his memory. Thomas grows up a little bit and learns more about living in the real world.
Much of the film's richness is achieved though the use of dialogue, particularly Thomas' storytelling abilities, although there is a very fine bit of cinematography at the end of the film. If most Native American films are as good as this one, this new film tradition should be a rich and enjoyable one. This film rates a B.
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