Arnold (Gary Farmer) rescued Thomas (Evan Adams) from a fire when he was a child. Thomas thinks of Arnold as a hero, while Arnolds son Victor (Adam Beach) resents his fathers alcoholism, violence and abandonment of his family. Uneasy rivals and friends, Thomas and Victor spend their days killing time on a Coeur dAlene reservation in Idaho and arguing about their cultural identities. When Arnold dies, the duo set out on a cross-country journey to Phoenix to retrieve Arnolds ashes.
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 Alexies novel, Reservation Blues. It won several awards and accolades, and was well received at numerous film festivals.
Young Indian man Thomas is a nerd in his reservation, wearing oversize glasses and telling everyone stories no-one wants to hear. His parents died in a fire in 1976, and Thomas was saved by Arnold. Arnold soon left his family, and Victor hasn't seen his father for 10 years. When Victor hears Arnold has died, Thomas offers him funding for the trip to get Arnold's remains
Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) live on the Coeur DAlene 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 Victors 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 Arnolds 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 Victors irritation with Thomas, and Thomass 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 fathers 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 Victors 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.
The film was very well received by major critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives Smoke Signals an 86% rating with 24 fresh and four rotten reviews. 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." 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 its pretty funny." 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 Eyres persistent use of long, trailing shots reinforces the storys elegiac tone. Simple and elegant, Smoke Signals is a delicious, heady debut that lingers long after the tale is told."
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 Eyres 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." Paul Bond of the World Socialist Web Site criticized Sherman Alexies 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.
Sherman Alexie wrote the screenplay for Smoke Signals and directed The Business of Fancydancing. Gary Farmer appears in Smoke Signals and Powwow Highway. Gary Farmer and Elaine Miles appear in Smoke Signals and Skins. Adam Beach and Michael Greyeyes appear in Smoke Signals and Skinwalkers. Irene Bedard appears in Smoke Signals and Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee.
Awards and honors1998 – American Indian Film Festival: Best film
1998 – Christopher Award
1998 – First Americans in the Arts: Outstanding Achievement in Writing (Sherman Alexie), Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Film (Evan Adams), Outstanding Achievement in Directing (Chris Eyre)
1998 – Gotham Awards: Nominations: Open Palm Award
1998 – National Board of Review: Special Recognition For Excellence In Filmmaking
1998 – San Diego World Film Festival: Best American Independent Feature; Best Screenplay (Sherman Alexie); Best Actor (Adam Beach); Best Director (Chris Eyre)
1998 – Sundance Film Festival: Filmmakers Trophy (Chris Eyre); Audience Award. Nominations: Grand Jury Prize
1998 – Taos Talking Picture Festival: Taos Land Grant Award (Chris Eyre)
1998 – Tokyo International Film Festival: Best Artistic Contribution (Chris Eyre) (tie)
1999 – Florida Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Newcomer (Chris Eyre/Sherman Alexie)
1999 – Independent Spirit Awards: Best Debut Performance (Evan Adams). Nominations: Best Supporting Male nomination (Gary Farmer), Best First Screenplay nomination (Sherman Alexie)
1999 – Young Artist Awards: Nominations: Best Performance in a Feature Film-Supporting Young Actor (Cody Lightning)
AFIs 100 Years... 100 Laughs – Nominated