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Smoke Signals

"It's a good day to be indigenous!' a reservation radio host shouts, followed by a traffic report at a rarely-used intersection: "A big truck just went by." This movie, written, directed, produced, and acted by native Americans, lets two young Indian men speak freshly and humorously for themselves.((The film opens in Idaho on July, 4th, 1976, a significant day for infant Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Adams), who is saved by being thrown from an upper window when his house burns down at 3 A.M. Caught by Arnold Joseph (Farmer) - an alcoholic neighbor at last divorced by his wife (Cardinal) and relocated to Phoenix - the rescued baby is reared on the Idaho reservation with Joseph's son, Victor Joseph (Beach).

Twenty years later, Arnold is dead. Victor resents him, but thinks he must go get his ashes. He has no money; Thomas offers to buy bus tickets if Victor will take him. Tall, silent Victor doesn't much liked skinny, talkative Thomas, but has no choice. As the movie becomes a road picture, the two talk; their dialogue is the movie's heart.((Alexie has a good ear, and allows his characters to refer to the real world, to TV, and to movies. The reserved Victor, impatient with Thomas's chatter, accuses him of having learned most of what he knows about Indians by watching "Dances With Wolves,' and advises him to spend more time "looking stoic.' These characters don't live in the past, or define themselves by crimes committed against their people. If they are the future, Arnold (Farmer) is the past. Victor resents him, but Joseph understandably realizes, Arnold saved his life. A few strong, brief flashbacks explain the older man: Arnold was more complicated than his son thinks, and inspired the respect of the woman he lived with in Phoenix (Bedard).

"Smoke Signals' is almost a continuation of a 1989 movie, "Powwow Highway,' in which Farmer starred as a gentle, insightful man. To see the two movies is to observe how Native Americans, like all Americans, are part of the melting pot. Listening to them discuss an Indian specialty, "frybread,' you sense what they know about the world.((The two men eventually get the ashes and some wisdom. Meanwhile, we watch them discover one another: the taciturn, inward man abused as a child, and the orphan who seems to have gotten his world view secondhand through the media.
Director(s): Chris Eyre
Writer(s): Sherman Alexie, based on his book,
Cast: Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal, Adam Beach
Release Date: 1998   
Keyword: Native Americans; claiming identity and culture
Target Age: 13+   Category: human rights
Documentary: no
Language: English with some subtitled native dialogue   Reviewer's Name: Micah
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