Grade: C+

Sherman Alexie is an accomplished poet, novelist, and screenwriter (he penned the script for Chris Eyre’s 1988 charmer “Smoke Signals,” based on one of his own stories); now he adds another feather to his cap, so to speak, by putting his hand to directing, and the results are mixed. “The Business of Fancydancing,” which Alexie adapted from another of his prose pieces and helmed himself on digital video, proves that the whole need not be more than the sum of its parts. The picture contains many haunting moments and some striking shards of dialogue, but overall it’s an uneven, often pretentious effort. Its semi-autobiographical aspects probably served as a means for the writer-director himself to confront–and perhaps exorcise–some personal demons, but to the outsider too much of the film is self-consciously poetic and, despite the touches of humor, too determinedly PC.

The picture’s about two friends who go off to college as best friends after graduating from the high school on the Spokane Indian reservation in 1985. One is Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams), a slight, intellectual sort whose ambitions lead him not only through graduation but into the literary life as a notable “Native American Author,” and whose sexual preferences drive him to drop his supportive girlfriend Agnes (Michelle St. John) and eventually make a life with Steven (Kevin Phillip), a white male companion. The other is Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban), a much more rambunctious and, as it happens, traditional sort who abandons his studies and returns to the reservation. Eighteen years later, Seymour is called back to his boyhood home for the funeral of a third buddy, the strolling violinist Mouse (Swil Kanim), and he must deal with the members of the tribe, including Aristotle, who consider him a phony and a sell-out, and with Agnes, who’s now the local teacher; but he also has to come to terms with his own past, which he’s basically suppressed in assimilating with the larger world.

“Fancydancing” is thus a sort of rumination on what it means to be true to one’s roots and maintain integrity when under pressure to succeed in “the real world.” Seymour is feted outside the reservation, but among his own people he’s dismissed as a fraud, particularly since he’s incorporated bits of his friends’ experiences into his supposedly autobiographical writings. (The attitude of the “rez” inhabitants toward him seems a mixture of pride, envy, admiration and distaste.) Aristotle, on the other hand, has successfully resisted compromise with the outside, but he’s filled with an inarticulate rage and discontent. (One of the most powerful scenes in the film shows him brutally attacking a stranded white motorist in a spontaneous act of fury.) Mouse, moreover, was in a way an embodiment of the old Spokane ways, but he was a suicide– an implicit admission, perhaps, of the futility of trying to maintain them uncorrupted. The only character who seems truly grounded is Agnes, whom Seymour in college had introduced to her long-ignored Indian background and now seems to have accepted things–even his rejection of her–without rancor.

Many of the sequences in the picture portray the difficulties of all these characters with considerable insight and incisiveness. In addition to the assault scene already noted, the depictions of Seymour’s poetry-reading sessions are slyly amusing, and the relationship that develops between Agnes and Mouse in flashback is nicely rendered. The linking moments of characters “fancydancing” in tribal dress add a touch of mystery and color, and it’s a pleasure to encounter two old friends from “Northern Exposure” again–Cynthia Geary, erstwhile Shelly, who delivers a eulogy to the departed Mouse, and Elaine Miles (Marilyn), immediately recognizable in a wordless role. (Unless I’m mistaken, the writer-director makes a brief appearance too, giving himself a funny line as a rez guy complaining about Seymour’s arrogance and condescension.) On the other hand, some important moments don’t come off at all. A sequence in which Aristotle loudly demands that Seymour leave college with him and another in which he confronts the returning writer after his long absence are both weak, largely because both Adams and especially Tagaban are performers of limited range and skill. A second linking device, in which a sharp-tongue, opinionated interviewer (Rebecca Carroll) interrogates various characters, is a thoroughly bad idea, making all too explicit points that would have been more effective if rendered more subtly. And for all his centrality to the story, Mouse remains a shadowy, indistinct presence. (Kanim’s wayward, broad performance hardly fills in the blanks.) Seymour’s great moment of catharsis–if that’s what it is–doesn’t carry much punch, either, based as it is on a “doubling” effect that’s undermined by the technical limitations of the production.

So while there are moments in “The Business of Fancydancing”–a title which apparently refers to the practice of commercializing one’s Indian past, a fault for which Seymour is castigated and of which Alexie might consider himself guilty–that are memorable and strong, the film is only sporadically compelling. As a whole it’s more a promising debut than a fully realized one.