On some levels, "Smoke Signals" treads the same ground as other movies with Native-American themes. Fire, water, even shamanistic magic are elements integral to director Chris Eyre's debut feature, bolstered by a vivid soundtrack of tribal drumming and chanting.
But that's where the similarities end. The film is a 180-degree turn from other onscreen depictions of Indian life, all too often delivered through romanticized period pieces like "Little Big Man" and "I Will Fight No More Forever."
Eyre's refreshing film is based on "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," a short-story collection by Sherman Alexie, who also wrote the screenplay and served as co-producer. It's a quirky, hilarious road movie that gracefully weaves in themes of male bonding, father-son relationships and a longing for home.
The tale centers on mismatched friends Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) -- handsome, long- haired and reserved -- and the nerdy, bespectacled Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), who is fond of wearing a suit and delivering long-winded, mystical stories packed with blurred truths and lies. The pair leave their Idaho reservation for Phoenix, Ariz., on a quest to collect the remains of Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), a recovering alcoholic who disappeared a decade ago. Victor's father, we learn through a prologue, saved the infant Thomas from a devastating house fire that took the lives of the latter's parents.
The filmmakers' fondness for and sadness about reservation life is demonstrated by several comic touches. Low-wattage radio station WREZ offers traffic reports from a pick-up parked at a lonely crossroads: "A big truck went by, and now it's gone." Two young female friends give Victor and Thomas a ride in a car that's permanently stuck in reverse. A sign describes the reservation population as "variable."
Eyre fills his most dramatic scenes with scorching flames, swirling sparks, lingering smoke and a rushing river. He makes liberal use of flashbacks, cutting from the present to key events from the characters' past. He also employs dreamlike sequences to illustrate Thomas' tales.
But "Smoke Signals" gains its greatest appeal from a self-deprecating sense of humor. "You know how Indians feel about signing papers," quips Victor's mom (Tantoo Cardinal). "Get stoic," Victor tells Thomas, as the two board a bus full of unwelcoming white people. "You gotta look like you just got back from killing a buffalo." And the two annoy fellow passengers with a silly ditty about John Wayne's never-seen teeth.
Thomas, who says he has seen "Dances With Wolves" about 100 times, nevertheless complains that "the only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV." It's one of many revealing moments in a movie certain to dismantle stereotypes while generating many laughs.