There are cultures that exist within cultures, that speak the same language and even share the same icons, but from opposite sides. American Indians are a culture within our own white world, but they’re a culture that looks at us with an eye that’s more alien than, say, the French or German or any European view would be. American whites forced the Indians into our world, we taught them English, we gave them new symbols like the American flag and Jesus, and we thought that that would make them A, better, and B, more like us. It’s typical of white American bigotry that we did.
And it isn’t news that we forcibly tried to remove every vestige of indigenous culture that we could find to stamp out, though now we’re surprised that so much of it is still alive and working. But it is. American Indians have rediscovered themselves and their cultures, with pride and curiosity instead of shame, and the new film "Smoke Signals," all Indian, written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, is a fascinating example of the ways in which Indians look at themselves and at us.
It begins on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in north Idaho, with two young men, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-fire, one parentless and one fatherless, tied together for life thanks to a drunken act on the reservation when they both were infants.
Victor lives with his mother, and he's consumed with hatred for his runaway father, a hatred that’s paralyzed him emotionally and kept him from living his own life and making his own way. Thomas, who’s lost both parents, lives with his grandmother, and he is a strange man to us in the audience, and even to Victor, the more assimilated one, because he is a storyteller. That -- and caring for his grandmother -- is his life and work. He tells stories even when no one wants to hear them, and he cannot be shut up. He and Victor are an odd couple, but we can see that they do belong together. Thomas somehow knows that he completes Victor, and Victor knows it too.
One day a call comes from Phoenix that Victor’s father, the man who ran away, has died, and the film covers the odyssey that Victor and Joseph make, traveling to Phoenix to collect his ashes and bring them back to the Coeur d’Alene reservation. Along the way they reconnect with each other, but also, since this is an Indian film, they give us the chance to see ourselves, the white culture, through Indian eyes. Adam Beach and Evan Adams, the two lead actors, are remarkably good. Beach, who plays Victor, is the more conventional, more accessible to non-Indians, and we find it easy to identify with him. But Adams, who plays Thomas, has created an amazing character, with hardly any connections to white expectations. He is all Indian, and not easy for us to respond to, but all the more interesting for it.
But Smoke Signals isn’t a thesis film about Indians and whites. It’s about the agonizing hole in your heart that comes from a father who’s not there -- whatever the reason -- a hole that can’t be filled no matter what you do or how hard you try. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re white, black, or Indian either. That’s the real film that Alexie has written and Chris Eyre has directed.
But Alexie’s script doesn’t let anybody off the hook. There’s a lot of Alexie’s delicious wit and irony; the dialogue is a pleasure to listen to. But in every encounter with whites, even the most benign, he’s placed an underlying tension that the powerless feel when dealing with the powerful. His writing makes sure we feel that tension as well.
Is ‘Smoke Signals’ perfect? No. There are a couple of moments in the script that rely on cliche instead of truth, and a few scenes that the director Chris Eyre hasn’t got quite right, and a couple of little bobbles around the edges, but for me this is a film of genius. Genius in giving us the very best sense of life on the reservation without preaching or moralizing or even complaining. American Indian life, sitting as it does like an alien enclave within contemporary white culture, deserves no less, and ‘Smoke Signals’ delivers it all.