As directed by Chris Eyre, "Smoke Signals," based on several stories in Sherman Alexie's 1993 short-story collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," is by turns warm and mystical, angry and hilarious.
Alexie's characters, lifelong twentysomething friends Victor Joseph (handsome Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (a comical and quizzical Evan Adams) take a colorful road trip from Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation to Phoenix to confront the legacy of his father (Gary Farmer), who disappeared a few years earlier and never returned. "They say when Indians go away, they don't come back," one character observes ruefully. But even more rueful is Thomas' reflection as the pair watch a movie on television in a rundown house trailer: "The only thing more pathetic than an Indian on TV is an Indian watching an Indian on TV."
At its Sundance premiere in January, the 31-year-old Alexie said there was movie interest after the publication of his short stories, "but I waited for an Indian director, an Indian Spike Lee..." He pauses for comic effect, then adds, "But Chris is nicer than that." Eyre, 28, a New York-based Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker from Klamath Falls, Oregon, became interested in movies through still photography. "I was trying to tell a story with each picture, then I realized, why limit myself to just one picture? When you make a film, there are twenty-four each second.
"The way that I wanted to make this film was almost to use the locations like documentary," he says, still musing on photography. "Reservations are different [from each other]. They're the same, but different. Coeur d'Alene, in particular, has a lot of fields and trees and hills. If it started out in Oklahoma, it would have been different. My interpretation of Indian country is whatever that location is. It's about establishing the environment with the characters. It's not what houses or roads look like."
Before I have a chance to ask Eyre to elaborate on how that approach contrasts with other filmmakers, he continues, "Anything that the film does is political, I think, because it's about Indians, y'know? And that in itself hasn't been done by Indians. The sensibilities that come into play with [an Indian writer, director, co-producers] are ones that we as Indians laugh at ourselves. Things that are important to me are not the same as a director who's non-Indian. It's self-representation. I think that's the strength of 'Smoke Signals.'"