DVD/Stream of the Week: SMOKE SIGNALS – Native American roadtrip to laughs and a long-buried secret

Evan Adams and Adam Beach in SMOKE SIGNALS

The smart and bitingly funny dramedy Smoke Signals is a film about Native Americans written and directed by Native Americans.  Evans Adams plays Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an Indian nerd, a character type almost certainly unique in cinema.  Adam Beach plays his oft-surly friend Victor.  The two had contrasting relationships with Victor’s father, who has recently died.  Thomas and Victor embark on a road trip to unearth a family secret.

Smoke Signals was written with an acerbic wit and is often downright uproarious. The laugh lines are as funny as in any screwball comedy: Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to have breakfast. One of the high points is a rendition of the original song John Wayne’s Teeth.

As Thomas and Victor banter, we get to glimpse inside both Indian Country and mainstream culture from the Indian point of view. Smoke Signals unflinchingly takes on alcoholism and other issues within the Native American community, as well as resentment of how Native Americans are treated by the dominant American culture.

Adam Beach and Evan Adams in SMOKE SIGNALS

Smoke Signals’s screenplay was written by Sherman Alexie, based on his own novel. Alexie set the core of the story on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation on which he grew up. It was directed in 1997 by then 28-year-old Chris Eyre. Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho, has since directed the Native American-themed Skins and Edge of America, along with episode of Friday Night Lights and American Experience.

Adams is hysterically funny as Thomas, and Beach is a capable straight man. Smoke Signals also features the fine Native Canadian actor and actress Gary Farmer and Tantoo Cardinal and the Native American actress Irene Bedard. Michele St. John and Elaine Miles are very funny as Victor and Thomas’ reservation friends Velma and Lucy.

The film won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Smoke Signals is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Dirty Girl: actors good, story not in teen road trip movie

Dirty Girl, which arrived with some measure of indie buzz, is a pleasing trifle, nothing more.   Two teenagers, whose parents don’t get them,  run away on a transformative road trip. One is played by Juno Temple, whose smart, quirky sexiness pretty much took over this year’s Kaboom.  The overweight gay kid is played by Jeremy Dozier.  Both are good, Temple is special and Dozier might be.  I’m looking forward to seeing them in better movies.

Against type, Milla Jovovich plays a trailer trash single mom.  Dwight Yoakam plays yet another dirtbag, this one without a lot of depth.

But it’s Mary Steenburgen who really reminds us how good she is.  Steenburgen plays what is written as a fairly cardboard role – the bullied wife, the prude wearing high-necked blouses, the devoted but helpless mom.  But Steenburgen brings so much texture and intensity to the performance and creates a character that transcends the one on the page.