Review by Gene
This month’s review for me is a bit of a random pick. I was checking out some sites that covered little-known movies available to stream on Netflix that were worth a watch, and Smoke Signals caught my eye. The plot summary is kind of intriguing: A young Indian man, Victor, must travel to collect his father’s remains, though he cannot afford the fare. Thomas offers to pay, if he can tag along. I really had no expectations going in, but it quickly became apparent that whether this film ended up being good or bad, it was at least quirky.
Released in 1998 under the direction of Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals won a handful of independent film awards, including Best Film at the American Indian Film Festival. Recognizable faces include Adam Beach (Flags of our Fathers, Windtalkers) as Victor Joseph, and a very small role from Tom Skerritt. The quirkiness, and indeed the spirit of the film is drawn primarily from Thomas, played by then newcomer Evan Adams. Adams gained a lot of recognition for his role as the reservation weirdo/story-teller. He glamorizes the simple. He makes the mundane seem strangely special and unique. It’s through his story-telling that the audience is meant to ascribe some attractiveness onto things that otherwise might rightly seem off-putting.
Victor’s father, Arnold (Gary Farmer), is credited with saving Thomas from a house-fire in 1976. Twelve years later he runs out on Victor and his mother, unable to face some of the realities still haunting him from that day. When Victor’s mother receives word that Arnold has died in Phoenix, Victor must travel there to collect his remains. Thomas, who seems fatefully attached to Victor and is perpetually reminding him of his father’s abandonment, offers to pay for the trip if he can tag along. The journey there and back is a long one; six days. Throughout the trip we’re shown key moments in Victor’s childhood, giving us insight as to his feelings toward his father. He sees him as a drunk, a liar, an abuser and ultimately a failure.
One of the stronger scenes in the film is when Arnold leaves his family. Victor, 12 years old at the time, clearly hates his father’s drunkenness and general absence. But he still runs after him, desperate for him to stay. There is a yearning there for his father. He doesn’t want him to go, but he doesn’t want him to be who he is. Arnold’s actions and his inability to deal with his own struggles led to his son despising him.
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” -Ephesians 6:4
As a father myself, this verse has brought me incredible comfort and resolve. It has also convicted me in the times I steer off course in raising my children. Fathers in America today receive a lot of praise if their sons are good athletes, if their daughters are beautiful, if any of them make it through college without a police record. I want my son to be a great athlete. I’m already nervous at how beautiful my daughters are. But the measure to my success as a father isn’t on the playing field or in the beauty contests, it’s in giving my children the blessings of a father seeking the approval of God, and mimicking that love and grace and discipline that I receive from the Lord onto them. Bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
If it’s any indication to the movie’s ability to draw you in, within the first 30 or 40 minutes my wife was asking me, “what website told you this was good?”. A question asked not in a good way. This movie was largely about forgiveness and trust, specifically between father and son. I’m a sucker for these kinds of stories. They can be incredibly insightful when done right. The father-son relationship knows no depths in my mind, and films which deliver a strong message on this bond, whether positive or negative, generally resonate with me. Unfortunately, this fell short far more often than it connected. I could tell the moments it was trying. I knew when I was supposed to be enjoying an emotional swell. But there was always something that threw it off course for me. The acting on the part of Victor’s father was often eradic. The music was usually a distraction to scenes rather than complementing them. Supporting actors here and there weren’t carrying their parts. It just always felt like it was missing one piece to make it work.
My Rating: 2.5/5
I wouldn’t say this movie is awful, but it never succeeds in making me feel attached to it. At the same time, I could understand to a certain degree if someone really liked it. For that reason I’ll associate our 3-star image with my rating rather than dipping down to the 2-star image. I enjoyed Evan Adams as Thomas, and Beach did alright as Victor. This movie is somehow categorized as a comedy. If this is a comedy then Dumb and Dumber is a drama. It is available to stream on Netflix, so thankfully I’m not out the cost of a rental, just 90 minutes of my time. There are however some decent lessons therein about forgiveness and how absentee fathers can’t really ever run away from their problems.