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Smoke Signals (film)

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Smoke Signals
Theatrical release poster
Directed byChris Eyre
Screenplay bySherman Alexie
Based onThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie
Produced by
  • Larry Estes
  • Scott Rosenfelt
CinematographyBrian Capener
Edited byBrian Berdan
Music byB.C. Smith
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release date
  • July 3, 1998 (1998-07-03)
Running time
89 minutes
  • United States
  • Canada
Budget$2 million (est.)
Box office$6.7 million[1]

Smoke Signals is a 1998 coming-of-age comedy-drama film directed by Chris Eyre from a screenplay by Sherman Alexie, based on Alexie's short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). The film won several awards and accolades, and was well received at numerous film festivals.

In 2018, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[2]


Hot-tempered basketball player Victor Joseph and eccentric storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire live on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Plummer, Idaho. The two men are brought together through Victor's father, Arnold, who rescued Thomas as an infant from a house fire that killed his parents in 1976. 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, friendship.

When Arnold dies in Phoenix, Arizona, where he has stayed after leaving Victor and his mother Arlene, Victor and Thomas go on an adventure to retrieve his ashes. The trip is the means for Victor and Thomas to explore their identities. Neither of them loses sight of his identity as an "Indian", but their perspectives differ. Victor is more stoic and Thomas is more traditional (and romantic to the point of watching the feature film Dances with Wolves countless times). Their dichotomy is portrayed all through the film; it results in Victor being irritated with Thomas, and Thomas being fascinated with Victor.

Once they reach Phoenix, Victor has to confront his conflicted feelings about his father, as well as his own identity. He has to grapple with a new account of Thomas's parents' death, as told by Arnold's friend Suzy Song, who reveals that Arnold had drunkenly set off fireworks and accidentally started the fire that killed Thomas' parents. The road trip by the young men leads to Thomas reconciling with the memory of his adoptive father Arnold, as he understands more of his path to alcoholism and related abuse and abandonment. Victor also gains a better understanding of Thomas and his reverence for Arnold. Victor and Thomas eventually throw Arnold's ashes into a river as a form of acceptance.



While it was not the first film created by native filmmakers in the United States, Smoke Signals is recognized as being the first feature-length film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans to reach a wide audience both in the US and abroad. This film is also notable for its authenticity with regard to its cast of Native American actors and actresses, and because it was filmed on location on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho.


Critical response[edit]

Smoke Signals was well received by mainstream critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90% based on 91 reviews, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Smoke Signals tells a familiar story from an underrepresented point of view, proving that a fresh perspective can help subvert long-established expectations."[3] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 76 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[4]

Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle gave the film a rave review, calling it, "unpretentious, funny and soulful ... Well-acted, well-written, with spare, beautiful imagery."[5] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times described 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."[6] Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle called the film "poignant and slyly humorous" and "alight with oddball nuances and wry observations," saying further, "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."[7]

Susan Tavernetti of the Palo Alto Weekly, gave the film a mixed review, saying that "although sometimes the attempt to break down stereotypes seems stilted and forced, more often the result is humorous." She also said, "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 praised the opening and closing sequences which "beautifully combine poetic voice-overs with visual lyricism."[8]



In 2023 Cody Lightning, who had portrayed the young Victor in the original film, released the mockumentary comedy film Hey, Viktor!, in which a fictionalized version of himself formulates a plan to revive his fading career by creating his own self-funded sequel to Smoke Signals.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Smoke Signals". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  2. ^ "'Jurassic Park,' 'Shining' added to National Film Registry". Associated Press. December 12, 2018. Retrieved December 12, 2018.
  3. ^ "Smoke Signals (1998)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 8, 2023.
  4. ^ "Smoke Signals Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  5. ^ Stack, Peter (July 3, 1998). "'Smoke' Causes Tears of Sadness, Joy". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  6. ^ Thomas, Kevin (June 26, 1998). "Smoke Signals: Stylish 'Signals' a Bittersweet Comedy About Friendship". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  7. ^ Savlov, Marc (July 17, 1998). "Smoke Signals". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  8. ^ Tavernetti, Susan (June 26, 1998). "Movie Review: Smoke Signals". Palo Alto Weekly. Archived from the original on April 12, 2018. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  9. ^ Gary M. Kramer, "'We need to laugh': 'Hey, Viktor' is a much-needed send-up of Native dysfunction and Hollywood". Salon, June 12, 2023.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]