Smoke Signals is the debut film from Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre, a completely engaging movie, thin on plot but thick with rich character development. Smoke Signals is essentially a road movie -- your standard philosophical journey of self-discovery -- but, while oftentimes the film plays out a bit too much like an afterschool special, the characters who undertake this call to adventure are fascinating.
Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) are two Native Americans on Coeur D'Alene Reservation in Idaho, different in almost every way, but forever linked by an event that occurred when they were both infants. On July 4, 1976, a fire killed Thomas’ parents, but Thomas was rescued by Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), Victor’s father. Arnold Joseph, who imagines himself to be a magician, indeed makes himself disappear, leaving his wife Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) and Victor behind for a new life in Phoenix. When he dies some years later, Victor must travel to the desert to claim his father’s ashes. Thomas, who deifies Arnold Joseph in stories, funds the trip in exchange for the privilege of accompanying Victor.
Thomas, who fancies himself a storyteller, and Victor, who believes himself a stoic warrior, provide an engrossing glimpse into the lives and attitudes of Native Americans, debunking myths and dispelling stereotypes with their engrossing conversations. Along their journey, not only do they discover new truths about themselves, but also about Arnold Joseph, who was undertaking his own journey.
Director Chris Eyres allows the story to unfold with an even hand and with uniquely Indian humor. The whole production seems as though we were given access to the characters’ vision quest; the interesting use of flashback adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. Eyres never lets arguments erupt into histrionics or situations degenerate into contrived melodrama, creating a genuine and sincere character study.
Smoke Signals was the winner of both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.