PARK CITY, Utah -- The "Smoke Signals" coming down from the mountain are clear and ringed with good omen.
The deserved winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, this Miramax release is a bracing, entrancing story of a young Native American man's struggle to reconcile his tenuous relationship with his father, a violent alcoholic whose antics disrupted the boy's entire upbringing. A serious insight into the dispiriting lives of many Native Americans on 20th century reservations, "Smoke Signals" is a sharply forged story of personal struggle and acceptance. Laced with humor and imbued with a tender spirit, it's likely to win strong acceptance on the select-site circuit.
A smart scoping of reservation life through the disenchanted eyes of young Victor (Adam Beach
), "Smoke Signals" tells the story of the incendiary sparks that underlie the lives of many who dwell on the reservation. In this telling scenario, we are witness to the traumas of the Joseph household, beginning with a drunken Fourth of July party a decade ago when Victor's father, Arnold (Gary Farmer
), set the family house afire in an alcoholic haze. While the fire destroyed the family's home, it was emblematic of the smoldering problem that caused it: Arnold's alcoholism. He's a boisterous, lumbering man whose serene countenance was torched when he took to drink.
Screenwriter Sherman Alexie
has prismed an incisive saga that paints a larger picture of tribal life in the 20th century. The feelings of dislocation and despair are clearly limned through these flesh-and-blood beings, while, their transcendent powers to cope with their demons, through humor are also wisely shown.
Similar in tone to "Pow-Wow Highway", which highlighted this festival several years back and also featured Farmer as a modern-day Native American, "Smoke Signals" ambulates its narrative territory in an appealing, soft-spoken manner and with an endearing, self-deprecating sense of humor. Director Chris Eyre
's sage storytelling lifts these "Smoke Signals" to highest and clearest dimension.
The performances are remarkable, particularly Joseph as the conflicted young man trying to make sense of his heritage. Evan Adams
is a delight as his quirky sidekick, and Farmer's forceful performance shows the deviltry of drink that makes him lose respect for himself. Tanto Cardinal is nicely stoic as the beleaguered wife and mother.
Technical contributions are packed with smart shadings, all illuminating the conflicts as well as the uplifting qualities of these well-drawn characters. Praise to production designer Charles Armstrong for the precision and appropriateness of what looks to be -- but clearly isn't -- the characters' thrown-together lives.
Producers: Scott Rosenfelt, Larry Estes
Director: Chris Eyre
Screenwriter: Sherman Alexie
Co-producers: Tim Eyre, Sherman Alexie
Executive producers: David Skinner,
Associate producers: Randy Suhr
, Roger Baerwolf
Line producer: Brent Morris
Director of photography: Brian Capener
Production designer: Charles Armstrong
Costume designer: Ronald Leamon
Editor: Brian Berdan
Music: B.C. Smith
Victor Joseph: Adam Beach
Thomas Builds-the-Fire: Evan Adams
Arnold Joseph: Gary Farmer
Arlene Joseph: Tanto Cardinal
Suzy Song: Irene Bedard
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating