A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Trying to understand one's personal and cultural past. Connections between friends and family, and how these make us who we are.
Positive Role Models
While the characters have their share of flaws, Native American characters care for each other and celebrate their culture and heritage despite the horrors of history and present-day poverty.
Historically, Native Americans have been among the most stereotyped people in movies. By contrast, this movie shows individuals from the Coeur d'Alene tribe and reservation -- fully developed, unique, self-aware of who they are and how others perceive them due to all the stereotyping. This indie 1990s movie features overwhelmingly Native American cast and crew -- one of the first of its kind.
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Violence & Scariness
Domestic abuse in some scenes -- a father strikes his son in the face for spilling his beer in his truck, beats his wife and knocks her down while he's drunk. A drunk man shoots off roman candles during the 4th of July, setting a house on fire that results in the death of a boy's parents. Two young boys get into a fistfight; one kid punched in the face repeatedly. Two lead characters, while driving down the road, come across an accident caused by a drunk driver. The driver then tries to blame the main characters for the accident -- acts surly and belligerent. A boy throws beer bottles at the back of his dad's truck.
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Language includes "bulls--t," "a--hole," "s--t," "ass," goddamn," "hell."
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Products & Purchases
Characters drink Coca-cola and mention Denny's, lovingly describing the Grand Slam breakfast items.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A character's drunken use of roman candles on the 4th of July starts a fire that kills two people. Father of one of the lead characters frequently drinks and becomes abusive when he loses his temper -- striking his wife and son. After his passing, it's later revealed by a friend that the man expresses tremendous regret for his actions and had quit drinking before he died. Drinking at a party. Man drinks beer in his truck while driving. Cigarette smoking.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Smoke Signals is a 1998 coming-of-age comedy in which two young Native American men go on a road trip to retrieve the ashes of one of the boy's recently deceased father. It's based on the book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. In flashback scenes, the father drinks until inebriated and abuses his wife and child. He punches his son in the eye when the boy drops the beer bottle he's holding for him while driving his truck, and strikes and knocks down his wife during a drunken argument. In a flashback scene, this man burns a house down while shooting off roman candles while drunk, resulting in the deaths of the parents of one of the lead characters. While on the road, the two lead characters stop upon a car accident caused by a surly drunk driver who tries to blame them for what happened. Language includes "bulls--t," "a--hole," "s--t," "ass," goddamn," and "hell." Cigarette smoking. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
This is a groundbreaking 1990s indie coming-of-age dramedy that's showing its age. As a movie made by and starring Native Americans, Smoke Signals went far to confront the stereotypes of a culture and people that found its way into movies practically from the moment movies were first made. In that regard, life on the reservation in the late 1990s and those who lived there are presented in all the ways that make them unique. It doesn't shy away from the problems of alcoholism and poverty, but it's also anchored by a dry ironic humor and a celebration of a culture as the second act transforms into something more like a "buddy movie."
However, the heavy-handed messaging hasn't aged well. It's like the filmmakers, cast, and crew were all aware of how much deplorable stereotyping and one-dimensional characters littered movie screens for so long that they wanted to overcome all of that in one fell swoop. It leads to some forced preachy dialogue that doesn't serve the story, a story that's conveying these messages just fine on its own. It's a decent movie all these years later, but the Sherma Alexie book on which it is based, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, is better.
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.