It’s 1998, and the independent film scene is breezy, blithe and beige. While Saving Private Ryan and Armaggeddon were sweeping the mainstream, indie fans recognized the year for the release of films Rushmore, Buffalo ‘66 and The Last Days of Disco. Lesser known still is Smoke Signals, the first feature length film helmed by Native American artists to reach a wide audience domestically and internationally.
The film follows Thomas (Evan Adams) and Victor (Adam Beach), two young men living on the Coeur d’Alène Reservation in Idaho. As different as different can be, the two are nonetheless brought together by a single source: Victor’s father, Arnold, who saved Thomas from a burning house when he was a baby. Arnold disappeared a number of years ago and has been out of touch. One day, Victor gets a call that he has passed away. It is the compassionate Thomas who ends up accompanying Victor on his journey to recover his father’s ashes and bring him home.
On paper, Smoke Signals is standard melodramatic road trip fare. Thomas and Victor are drawn as opposites in every possible fashion, from dress to speech, and Victor’s antipathy for Thomas’ naivety is considerable. However, through a creative use of flashbacks, the story weaves in a source of empathy for what many would consider a very dislikable character.
Movements, such as a door opening or a character running out into the open road, cue the fluid transition to Victor’s childhood memories. Even as he positions himself into a defensive, guard-up body posture, the notions that those stories are flowing through his head suggest an overwhelming sense of regret. His sparse, terse words are contradicted by the emotional depth blossoming through his background. He becomes even more relatable than Thomas.
The great American West is on display in the film, however subtly. The brief glance of a canyon or an Arizona sunset serves as a reminder of the loneliness of the journey the two men are taking. Miles from home, with no context aside from a stray address, the ensuing journey provokes a deep-reaching melancholia.
Throughout all of their squabbles, Thomas and Victor are intrinsically tied to a man who hasn’t even been in their lives for the past ten years. Victor is compromised by anger at his abandonment, and Thomas is still under the guise that Arnold is a total hero. Each impression of Arnold meets its match with grief, and the cognizance that regardless of what he was, he is no more.
As with any good family drama, there is a bit of a twist. It might be an obvious one, but its discovery nonetheless propels the two protagonists into a quarrel with one another and then, later, a higher power. Irene Bedard, best known for voicing Pocahontas in the 1995 Disney film, makes an appearance as Suzy Song, Arnold’s neighbor in Phoenix prior to his death. Her portion of the movie is the opportunity for Thomas and Victor to hear the truth, whether they like it or not. It’s made all the more complex by her relationship with Arnold.
Why does one random neighbor get to know Victor’s father better than Victor ever got to? In his cruel, chary interpretation of the world, Victor assigns distrust with no particular methodology. He assumes that the abuse he endured as a child is universal, thereby villainizing innocent strangers.
Despite Smoke Signals being selected to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry in 2018, there are certain aspects of the film that don’t read as well to modern audiences. Ultimately, despite not being inherently pretentious, some of the dialogue is a little corny.
The first film that comes to mind in comparative style is Stand By Me (1986), a classic in its own right, but which is focused on 12-year-olds finding a dead body. Smoke Signals’ ‘90s tropes sometimes get the better of it (see: Twin Peaks season one), and it's very brown exterior is not always the most visually engaging.
Still, the ashes to ashes symbolism binding works wonderfully. Even with Thomas’ goofy glasses and smile, there is wisdom to be found in his character. There are brief moments of remarkable beauty that make enduring the dehydrated atmosphere worthwhile. The film’s simplicity is its greatest asset, and it’s no surprise why, beyond its distinct production feat, its story of grief and reconciliation is still seen as culturally relevant today.