Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Indian poet and novelist who has transformed some of his own short stories into Smoke Signals (Miramax), wants to ditch the old images of Native Americans as stoics, nobles, and People of the Mazola Corn Oil (“what we call “maize”). “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV,” Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) tells his good friend Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), demonstrating the kind of it’s-okay-to-joke good humor that gives this audience-pleasing first feature (directed by Cheyenne-Arapaho Chris Eyre) its lilt. Years ago, Victor’s father saved baby Thomas from the blaze that consumed his parents; no wonder Thomas—a small, Urkelesque nerd who lives with his grandmother and tells stories in the Great Indian Oral Tradition the way other kids recount baseball games—feels connected to Victor like a brother. But handsome Victor is less chatty. That same “heroic” father was also an alcoholic who abandoned him and his mother years ago, and the young man flaunts a cocky independence that, inevitably, masks deep grief and anger.
The news that the elder Joseph has died of a heart attack in Phoenix sends the two fatherless friends on a classic road trip to retrieve the remains—and, in the doing, to learn about manhood, friendship, forgiveness, and their place as Indians (Alexie prefers this term) who want to leave the reservation, as the writer did. Smoke Signals is unexceptional in its depiction of father-son reconciliation and breakthrough mourning (Victor falls to his knees and finally lets out a Native howl). But the film excels in small scenes of cannily chosen Indian everydayness: The local deejay announcing “It’s a good day to be indigenous”; Thomas’ extemporaneous paean to Mrs. Joseph’s artisan fry bread; a conversation about the power of hair; and a demonstration of that great, haunting Native American chant, the one that goes “John Wayne’s teeth, heyyyyyy!” B+