Smoke Signals (film)

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Smoke Signals
Smoke Signals.jpg
Directed by Chris Eyre
Produced by Chris Eyre
Sherman Alexie
Carl Bressler
Larry Estes
Scott Rosenfelt
David Skinner
Written by Sherman Alexie
Based on "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" 
by Sherman Alexie
Starring Adam Beach
Evan Adams
Irene Bedard
Gary Farmer
Tantoo Cardinal
Music by B.C. Smith
Cinematography Brian Capener
Edited by Brian Berdan
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release dates
  • June 26, 1998 (1998-06-26)
Running time
Approx 89 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,000,000 (est.)

Smoke Signals is an independent film directed and co-produced by Chris Eyre and with a screenplay by Sherman Alexie, based on the short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" from his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. There are references to Alexie's novel, Reservation Blues. It won several awards and accolades, and was well received at numerous film festivals.


Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) live on the Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation in Plummer, Idaho. Thomas is an eccentric storyteller and Victor is an angry young man who enjoys playing basketball.

Victor and Thomas are brought together through Victor's father, Arnold (Gary Farmer). Arnold rescued Thomas as an infant from a house fire that killed his parents. Because of this, Thomas considers him a hero. On the other hand, Victor, who endures Arnold's alcoholism, domestic violence, and eventual child abandonment, regards his father with both deep love and bitter resentment. Thomas and Victor grow up together as neighbors and acquaintances, fighting with each other and simultaneously forming a close, albeit uneasy, alliance.

When Arnold dies in Phoenix, Arizona, where he has stayed after leaving Victor and his mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal), Victor and Thomas go on an adventure to retrieve his ashes. It was a self proclaiming trip for Victor and Thomas. Neither of them lose sight of their identity as "Indians", but their perspectives differ. Victor is more of a stoic type, and Thomas is more traditional (and romantic to the point of watching the feature film Dances with Wolves countless times). This dichotomy continues all through the film and is the source of Victor's irritation with Thomas, and Thomas's fascination with Victor.

Once in Phoenix, Victor must confront his conflicted feelings about his father, as well as his own identity. He also must grapple with information provided to him by his father's friend, Suzy Song (Irene Bedard), mainly, the true origins of the fire that killed Thomas' parents. A drunken Arnold accidentally started the fire with fireworks. The trip turns out to ultimately cure Victor's brooding disposition toward life and shows him why his father became an alcoholic, was abusive, and eventually left their family. Ultimately, Victor achieves a better understanding of Thomas and of his unconditional reverence for Arnold.


The film is unique as an all-Native American production: producers, director, screenwriter (Alexie), actors and technicians. Alexie wanted to give them all a chance to shine.

Critical reception[edit]


The film was very well received by major critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives Smoke Signals an 86% rating with 24 fresh and four rotten reviews.[1] Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle gives the film a rave review calling it, "unpretentious, funny and soulful [...] Well-acted, well- written, with spare, beautiful imagery."[2] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times describes Smoke Signals as, "a warm film of friendship and reconciliation, and whenever it refers to historic injustices or contemporary issues in Native American culture, it does so with wry, glancing humor. Smoke Signals is indeed poignant, but above all it's pretty funny."[3] Marc Savlov of the The Austin Chronicle describes the film as "poignant and slyly humorous" and "alight with oddball nuances and wry observations." He also says, "the cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, and Eyre's persistent use of long, trailing shots reinforces the story's elegiac tone. Simple and elegant, Smoke Signals is a delicious, heady debut that lingers long after the tale is told."[4]

Susan Tavernetti of the Palo Alto Weekly, gave the film a mixed review stating that, "although sometimes the attempt to break down stereotypes seems stilted and forced, more often the result is humorous." She also says, "Chris Eyre's direction establishes an uneven tone, allowing some actors to deliver performances bordering on broad caricature while others play their roles straight." She praises the opening and closing sequences which she states, "beautifully combine poetic voice-overs with visual lyricism."[5] Paul Bond of the World Socialist Web Site criticized Sherman Alexie's screenplay; he felt it was not as strong as the short story collection on which it was based. Bond also believes the producers of the film made compromises based upon commercial pressures.[6]

Awards and honors[edit]


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]