‘Smoke Signals’ is a surprising delight

Smoke Signals (1998)

Directed by Chris Eyre

7/10 PG-13

If, like me, you are told you will be watching the movie Smoke Signals in English Lit, and you are told that it is based on the short story “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie, you might let out a groan. But don’t fear. While the movie sounds daunting and/or boring, chances are, if you’re like me, you might actually enjoy it. Smoke Signals is directed by Chris Eyre (Skins) and written by Sherman Alexie.

When Victor’s (Adam Beach) father dies in Phoenix, no one can afford to drive from the Spokane, Washington reservation to retrieve his ashes. No one really wants to either, after the drunk left town (as well as Victor and his mother) years ago. But Victor is called upon to be the man for the job. Nerdy, annoying Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) offers to pay for his ride down, under one condition…he must come along for the ride. Victor, naturally, is hesitant. Thomas incessantly tells stories, and he and Victor had a falling out a few years ago. But Victor agrees, because he needs to get his father, and so the story begins. What will he do with his father’s remains? Will he even end up taking them? Will he have to take back Thomas’s remains as well?

Part comedy, part drama, Smoke Signals defies all convention by telling a story of two normal young adults that just happen to be Native American. The scenes show that they are fun, free-spirited, and goofy, much like anyone else can be. Victor even jokes about his “warrior face” when he comments that Thomas smiles too much. In the end, the movie is a great big sigh of relief that such a movie can be made that doesn’t have to be filled with stereotypes (except for alcoholism and basketball).

Much like Frances McDormand in Fargo, Evan Adams’ accent plays a large role in Smoke Signals’ comedic gusto. A mix between Clint Eastwood and Forrest Gump, between a Canadian and a quack psychic, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire’s voice puts a smile on the face of the audience as he tells his famous stories. The script is hilarious, and It helps to have a unique voice to read the lines, as Evan Adams does.

Adam Beach (Law and Order: SVU) is the original Jacob (the Twilight one), as he ignores the fun that Thomas is having in favor of his “warrior face” and takes pride in his flowing, long, (ugly) hair. Eventually, he cuts it off…but not all of it; just enough to make him look even more like a 40-year-old woman.

The soundtrack, which ranges from traditional powwow music to what seems like Vanessa Carlton (it’s actually a group called Ulali, I guess), is much less than impressive. Even the most dramatic scenes don’t have the intense soundtrack it could have.

Overall, Smoke Signals is amusing, heart-breaking, and intriguing. So if you have to watch it for English class like I did, hold back your groans…you might end up loving it.

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3 thoughts on “‘Smoke Signals’ is a surprising delight

  1. I remember watching this and enjoying it but nothing about it remains. I don’t think it’s a problem with the movie except that it’s maybe a little too low key to be very memorable over time. Oh, and stop writing so much, I’m avoiding my own post by reading yours.

    1. Ha! Thanks for reading, though! I try reaching 500 words when I can, it makes me feel more productive! But I agree, I don’t think it has that “wow factor” that keeps it popular for a long amount of time (except amongst my English professors, apparently). Critics loved it, but I hadn’t heard of it, so that says something I guess.

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