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by Jim Wunderle

"Slums of Beverly Hills"

Directed by: Tamara Jenkins

Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Corrigan

Rated: R

"Smoke Signals"

Directed by: Chris Eyre

Starring: Adam Beach, Evan Adams

Rated: PG-13

On the surface, you might think that "Slums of Beverly Hills" and "Smoke Signals" are two films that could not be further apart artistically.

The former concerns a working-class Jewish family struggling to maintain the status quo in Beverly Hills circa 1976.

The latter is the first film ever written, directed and produced entirely by Native Americans and concerns the many dilemmas faced by these indigenous people 500 years after Columbus "discovered" America.

At first glance these films do seem rather disparate, but upon seeing them back to back, I found a lot of similarities and a lot to like in each one. Both films revolve around "family" issues and both deal with journeys pilgrimages physical, emotional and spiritual.

It should also be noted that both "Slums of Beverly Hills" and "Smoke Signals" were very well-received on the festival circuit. Robert Redford who founded the Sundance Film Festival is listed as executive producer of "Slums," and writer/director Tamara Jenkins developed her script with the aid of the Sundance Directors Lab.

"Smoke Signals" has garnered attention far and wide for its unique perspective. For the first time there's a film about Native Americans that was written and directed by Native Americans.

They're both "small" films but "Slums of Beverly Hills" has a bigger advertising budget while "Smoke Signals" seems to be depending mostly on word-of-mouth promotion.

Both films provide rather unique cinematic insights into their respective cultures.

In "Slums of Beverly Hills," the Abramowitz family, headed by single dad Murray, tries to stay one step ahead of various landlords while also staying in the Beverly Hills school district. At the heart of the story is 14-year-old Vivian who has just started "budding out" in a very big way.

Viv is the surrogate character for director Jenkins and, as played by Natasha Lyonne, is a person who really gets the audience on her side. If John Waters hadn't already used the title, this film could easily have been called "Female Trouble."

It's yet another (but a highly original) "coming of age" movie, and the one thing I found confusing about the film is the fact that the previews seem to position it as some sort of low-brow comedy.

There are a lot of funny moments, but all in all this is a bittersweet drama about the pains we all have faced (each in our own way) within our family units. This was one of those movies that I actually liked better the day after seeing it. The story really stayed with me, and I found myself thinking about the film quite a bit.

The same is true for "Smoke Signals."

The story here involves two young men members of the Couere d'Alene Indian tribe Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Victor's estranged father has just passed away, and he needs to get to Phoenix to claim the ashes and settle the affairs.

The only way he can afford to go is with the help of Thomas, the most unstereotypical Indian ever portrayed on film. Thomas, on first impression, can only be described as a "nerd."

While Victor is strong and stoic, Thomas is gangly, goofy, uncoordinated and rather "windy." He constantly goes off into stories about the people of his tribe and their historical exploits.

Victor has a lot of pent-up anger and emotional baggage concerning his father, and the last thing he wants to hear on the bus ride to Phoenix is more of Thomas' tales of the tribe.

In the end, the journey proves cathartic for everyone concerned, and we come to realize that Thomas, in his own way, is carrying on a grand tradition of his people.

"Smoke Signals" is certainly the most original film to come along this year, and I'd have to say one of the five or six best, as well.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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