The more one tries to describe a movie like Smoke Signals the likelier it is one will kill it. The story is about a son who eventually reaches some understanding concerning his father, who left the family years ago. The discovery and acceptance by the resentful Victor Joseph of his father's own unhappiness plays out in a road trip Victor and his friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, take from the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho where they live to Phoenix to pick up the father's ashes.
This sort of story has been so often turgidly overplayed by film-makers searching for "truth" that it's a surprise to find just how touching and humorous Smoke Signals turns out to be. The story may be about a search of discovery, but it's played out against the friction of reservation life in a white world. The humor carries a lot of irony but the dialog and situations are so gentle and natural that the inherent messages don't slam us about. There's no victim card played here, just some truths told with the kind of underplayed honesty that makes ethnic humor, delivered by those same ethnic people, work not just for them but for those in a white world who overhear.
Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) is a big, good looking young man who barely gets along, plays basketball and carries a chip on his shoulder. Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) is a scrawny, glasses-wearing young man who tells stories and talks about almost everything. Thomas has been raised by his grandmother. A fire killed his parents and it was Victor's father, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), who caught Thomas, just a baby, when Thomas was tossed from a second floor window. Arnold Joseph was a big man, quick to laugh and quick to hit, maybe not a drunk but close to it. He denied being a hero.
One day, when Victor was about 12, Arnold Joseph picked up and left. Victor never forgave him. When word of Arnold's death reaches Victor's mother. Victor decides he must get the ashes, but he doesn't have enough money.
"Hey Victor!" Thomas says, "I'm sorry 'bout your dad."
"How'd you hear about it?" Victor asks.
"I heard it on the wind," Thomas says, "I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. And your mom was just in here cryin'."
Thomas has some money in a jar and offers it if he can come along. Off they go, hitchhiking, taking a bus, walking. Along the way, while Victor wrestles with his feelings about the father who left him, screenwriter Sherman Alexie and director Chris Eyre give us the kind of edgy smiles that are rare nowadays.
"You gotta look mean or people won't respect you," says Victor to Thomas on the bus to Phoenix. "White people will run all over you if you don't look mean. You gotta look like a warrior! You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo!"
"But our tribe never hunted buffalo -- we were fishermen," says Thomas.
"What!" says Victor, "you want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? This ain't 'Dances With Salmon' you know!"
Yes, they return to the reservations with the ashes. Victor winds up learning a lot about himself as well as about his father. He learns a good deal about what Thomas reaches for with all the stories Thomas tells. We learn a lot about the value of a quiet movie with a fine screenplay and skillful direction. We learn about fry bread. And as Thomas says, when the going gets tough, "Sometimes it's a good day to die, and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast."
All the actors do commendable jobs, but Evan Adams is a standout. When he closes his eyes and starts to spin one of Thomas' stories, you don't want him to stop. Adams has the challenging job of bringing us to the movie's close, emotionally and thoughtfully. "Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs, or in their deaths, saying it to them, or not saying it? If we forgive our fathers...what is left?"
Smoke Signals is based on Sherman Alexie's book of stories, The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven.