Smoke Signals

June 26th, 1998


Smoke Signals

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Young Indian man Thomas is a nerd in his reservation, wearing oversize glasses and telling everyone stories no-one wants to hear...

Release Year: 1998

Rating: 7.0/10 (5,627 voted)

Critic's Score: 76/100

Director: Chris Eyre

Stars: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard

Young Indian man Thomas is a nerd in his reservation, wearing oversize glasses and telling everyone stories no-one wants to hear. His parents died in a fire in 1976, and Thomas was saved by Arnold. Arnold soon left his family (and his tough son Victor), and Victor hasn't seen his father for 10 years. When Victor hears Arnold has died, Thomas offers him funding for the trip to get Arnold's remains, but only if Thomas will also go with him. Thomas and Victor hit the road.

Writers: Sherman Alexie, Sherman Alexie

Adam Beach - Victor Joseph
Evan Adams - Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Irene Bedard - Suzy Song
Gary Farmer - Arnold Joseph
Tantoo Cardinal - Arlene Joseph
Cody Lightning - Young Victor Joseph
Simon Baker - Young Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Monique Mojica - Grandma Builds-the-Fire
John Trudell - Randy Peone
Chief Leonard George - Lester Fallsapart (as Leonard George)
Michael Greyeyes - Junior Polatkin
Darwin Haine - Boo
Michelle St. John - Velma
Elaine Miles - Lucy
Cynthia Geary - Cathy the Gymnast

Taglines: A new film from the heart of Native America.

Release Date: 26 June 1998

Filming Locations: Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, Plummer, Idaho, USA

Box Office Details

Budget: $2,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend: $43,574 (USA) (28 June 1998) (5 Screens)

Gross: $6,719,300 (USA) (18 October 1998)

Technical Specs


Did You Know?

During the shooting of Lucy and Velma driving backwards, Elaine Miles (Lucy) acquired the skill of driving the car backwards. Hence, no stunt driver was needed. Miles performed the driving herself.

Factual errors: There is no way that one bus driver could have driven the same bus continuously from Idaho to Arizona. Federal law would prohibit it.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: Sometimes it's a good day to die, and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast.

User Review

Nothing short of miraculous.

Rating: 10/10

Smoke Signals is a somewhat misunderstood film. The setting on an Indian reservation leads viewers to believe that Smoke Signals is about Indian issues or Indian philosophy. To be sure, the presence of Indian values and culture make this movie decidedly more enjoyable, but the movie is more transcendent, more universal than a purely Indian film. And, while this was heralded as the first movie to be written, directed and co-produced by Native Americans, there is something here for everyone, regardless of ethnicity.

More than anything else, this movie appealed to me as a writer. It is beautifully written and expertly crafted from beginning to end. The first scene, narrated lyrically by Evan Adams as Thomas Builds-the-fire, sets the tone for a story handed down, as with Native American culture, in true oral tradition.

Based on the book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, the french title, Le secret des cendres (The secret of the ashes) more accurately describes the book and the movie. With multiple allusions to fire and ash, each having different meanings, as well as a well integrated use of Native American lore, Smoke Signals requires more than a little thought for the average American viewer.

The story revolves around two young Coeur d' Alene Indian men dealing with loss and the end of childhood innocence. The two men cope with loss in very different ways; Thomas though mysticism and legend, Victor through stoicism and denial. When Victor Joseph, brilliantly played by Adam Beach, learns that his estranged father has died, he and Thomas embark on a journey to claim the ashes, another allusion of the french title, and on the way get in touch with their identities as adults apart from their parents.

Evan Adams is stupendous as Thomas Builds-the-fire. His storytelling scenes are pure magic. By imbuing simple memories with mystical reverence, he elevates them, and thus both himself and his listeners, to a new spiritual level. His exaltation of the ordinary is the core of this delightful work of genius. It culminates with a reading, slightly modified, of Dick Lourie's poem "Forgiving Our Fathers". Lourie, who is a self-described unreconstructed beatnik poet, brings a fragile and elegant beauty to the film's emotional climax. The final scenes, driven by Adams' narration and haunting Native American chant and music, are nothing short of miraculous.

Adam Beach, strapping and stalwart as Victor Joseph, managed to parlay his appearance in Smoke Signals into a respectable film career. Evan Adams, diminutive and shy as Thomas Builds-the-fire, was not so lucky despite his masterful performance. Perhaps Admas' aspirations ran along different lines, as these days, even after starring in what is basically a sequel (The Business of Fancydancing, also by Alexie) Adams can now be called Dr. Adams, as he has become a respected and accomplished physician in British Columbia.

The supporting cast was equally magnificent, and each lends credibility and energy to the movie. An interesting sidenote is that Irene Bedard, who appears as Suzy Song, was the physical model for Pocahontas in the Disney animated feature.

I have seen this movie many times, and will undoubtedly watch it many more. Each time I am left in silent awe as I reflect on my own life, family, and philosophies.


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