Smoke Signals

Heavily promoted on the basis of its Native American pedigree — it's written by acclaimed novelist Sherman Alexie — this film won both the Audience Award and the Filmmaker's Trophy at the 1998 year's Sundance Film Festival. July 4, 1976: While mainstream America celebrates its bicentennial, two families, the Josephs and unfortunately named Builds-the-Fire...read more

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Reviewed by Sandra Contreras
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Heavily promoted on the basis of its Native American pedigree — it's written by acclaimed novelist Sherman Alexie — this film won both the Audience Award and the Filmmaker's Trophy at the 1998 year's Sundance Film Festival. July 4, 1976: While

mainstream America celebrates its bicentennial, two families, the Josephs and unfortunately named Builds-the-Fire clan, are partying on the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation. One thing leads to another, and soon the Builds-the-Fire house is engulfed in flames. Joseph-family patriarch Arnold saves little Thomas Builds-the-Fire, but Thomas's parents die in the blaze. He goes to live with his grandmother (Monica Mojica), while Arnold sinks under the weight of alcoholism, alienating and eventually abandoning his wife Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) and their stubborn son, Victor (Cody

Lightning). Twenty years later, Arlene and the grown Victor (Adam Beach) get the news that Arnold has died in his shabby trailer outside of Phoenix. The stoic Victor doesn't have the cash to make the trip, but Thomas (Evan Adams), now an amiable — if somewhat goofy — young man, offers to pay if Victor will let him tag along. The road trip of self-discovery and the mismatched traveling companions are formulaic, but director Chris Eyre tries to mix things up, throwing a comedic hook into a serious scene or undercutting a big laugh with something more dramatic in tone. That said, he's just

as likely to reach for the cinematic jugular with a melodramatic moment like Victor loosing a primal scream as he throws his father's ashes over a waterfall, and the constant flashbacks and flash-forwards are both distracting and mawkish. Alexie, who adapted his own novel, bears responsibility for the movie's ham-fisted treatment of racial-identity issues, its tiresome jokes and the dated, throbbing-guitar soundtrack.

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