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Film / Smoke Signals

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A New Film From the Heart of Native America

"Hey, Victor!"

Smoke Signals is a 1998 comedy-drama film directed by Chris Eyre. It is the first movie to be written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans.

Geeky, orphaned Thomas (Evan Adams) lives on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho where he's reluctantly looked after by stoic Victor (Adam Beach), whose long-gone father Arnold (Gary Farmer) saved Thomas from the fire that killed his parents. When Victor learns of Arnold's death in Phoenix, Thomas says he'll pay the expenses of the trip if he can accompany Victor. The young men reach an understanding during their travels, while Victor struggles to deal with his complicated feelings about his father and the past.

Adapted from the short story This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona, featured in the short story collection Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven by Sherman Alexie, who also wrote the screenplay.

A Spiritual Successor saw release at film festivals in 2023, in the form of a mockumentary called Hey Viktor!, directed by and starring the now-grown Cody Lightning as an Adam Westing version of himself, who is disillusioned that everyone else from the movie became popular while he only gets offers for gay pornos and pro-fracking commercials. So he decides to make a Smoke Signals sequel, if only he can get Beach onboard.

These films contain examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Victor's parents. Arnold is the more pressing case, being willing to strike Victor across the face and even beat his mother right in front of him. His mother isn't innocent either, as it's made pretty clear that her alcoholism was impairing her parenting for most of Victor's early childhood. She does, however, get heaps of credit for finally realizing this trope was at play and then defying it the best that she could.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The movie includes a number of additional scenes and plot points that don't appear in the original story, many of which are adapted from other stories in the collection by Alexie.
    • The movie also adds the character of Suzy Song, who doesn't appear anywhere in Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven.
  • Beautiful All Along: Parodied when Thomas unbraids his hair, dons a stylish "Frybread Power" T-shirt, and ditches his glasses...for about five seconds. He keeps the shirt, though.
  • Catchphrase: Whenever Thomas finishes with one of his stories, Victor usually negates the truthfulness of it with "Thomas, you're so full of shit..."
    • When Thomas wants to get Victor's attention he usually cries out, "HEY VICTOR!"
    • Also by Thomas, "Some days, it's a good day to die. And some days, it's a good day to have breakfast."
    • Earlier in the film a variation of the same phrase is used by Junior, one of Victor's basketball buddies, "Some days, it's a good day to die. And some days, it's a good day to play basketball."
  • Cool Old Guy: Arnold. Played basketball and was a very crafty magician.
  • Defrosting Ice King: Victor is an example of this.
  • Disappeared Dad: Arnold abandoned Victor as a child, and it's the focus of the film.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When two white men steal the boys' bus seats.
    Thomas: Um, excuse me? These are our seats.
    Man: You mean these were your seats.
    Victor: No, that's not what he means.
    Man: Now listen, these are our seats now. There ain't a damn thing you can do about it.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Arnold and Suzy. Amplified by the fact that Arnold is quite wide around the waist.
  • Important Haircut: Victor cuts his hair with a folding knife when faced with the family mementos kept by his runaway father. He had previously told Thomas that long, free-flowing hair is an Indian man's sign of pride. His dad cut his hair (and never grew it long again) after he accidentally caused the fire that killed Thomas' parents.
    • Among many Native American tribes, cutting hair off is a sign of mourning.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Arnold and Suzy are this.
  • Jerkass: Victor has shades of this. Though not outright unpleasant he is not above bullying his friends and isn't exactly nice to Thomas. It becomes particularly prominent with his interactions with Suzy.
    • There is also that bit where he proceeded beat the crap out of poor Thomas when they were kids.
      • To his credit though, Thomas had just finished asking Victor if the reason his father Arnold had left their family was because he hated Victor.
    • Victor still has his moments too: When Thomas demonstrates how different substances burn in different colors, Victor asks him what color his parents were when they died.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Victor turns out to be this at the climax of the film.
  • Mama Bear: Arlene is a strong but nonviolent example of this. After a night of "boozing", she wakes up at the sound of a young Victor breaking beer bottles on the side of their house. The impact of seeing her son in that state prompts her to stop drinking. Being an alcoholic, the fact that she goes cold turkey and evidently STAYS on the wagon proves the lengths she will go to for her son. She is even willing to put up with Arnold's beatings if it means Victor won't have to see her or Arnold drunk ever again.
  • Meaningful Echo: "I/He didn't mean to."
  • Momma's Boy:
    • While Victor is generally aloof, cold and a Jerkass to those around him, he clearly has a close bond with his mother, Arlene.
    • Thomas is this in spades with his grandmother. Complete with the selection of wardrobe and the same hair styles.
  • Mood Whiplash: A flashback of the young Victor riding with his father in a pickup, with his dad telling him fanciful stories of being a magician who can make people disappear. Then Victor drops his dad's beer on accident, and his dad elbows him in the face.
  • Road Trip Plot: Victor and Thomas go on a road trip to Phoenix to retrieve Arnold's ashes and grow as people along the way.
  • Saw "Star Wars" Twenty-Seven Times: Victor Joseph tweaks Thomas Builds-the-Fire over how many times the latter has seen Dances with Wolves.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Thomas is bespectacled and nerdy, whilst Victor is athletic and stoic.
  • Stepford Smiler: Victor serves as a Type A male example of this. He gives a gymnast Thomas talks to on the bus to Arizona a brutal verbal smackdown after catching her in a lie, all the while smiling.
    • He does tend to insult people while smiling the whole way through. Could be his personal way of subverting the "Stoic, Grim Noble Savage" trope.
  • The Story Teller: Thomas is well known as this, much to Victor's annoyance.
    • Arnold proves to be this as well, as shown when he tells the story of how he and Victor "defeated the Jesuits in a basketball game".
  • Took a Level in Kindness: After verbally abusing Thomas for the better part of their journey, when they finally arrive home Victor thanks Thomas and gives him some of Arnold's ashes. To Thomas this is a VERY BIG DEAL.