It’s not often that we see an entire film taking place in the barren wilderness that is Alaska. When there is an Alaska-based movie, it’s usually a horror film manipulating the isolation and constant darkness factors for the ultimate scare. In Andrew Okpeaha Maclean’s “On the Ice,” Alaska is as stark as we’ve ever known it, but it’s the tight-knit community of people that cause the most trouble here.
Best friends Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) and Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) couldn’t be more different. Aivaaq lives with his alcoholic mother in a house no bigger than a shack, while Qalli has a wonderful, middle-class family with no real problems. Aivaaq just got his girlfriend Uvlu (Sierra Jade Simpson) pregnant, while Qalli prepares to head off to college. Aivaaq is the outgoing, yet troubled one, with Qalli usually following his lead.
When the two friends go hunting with one of their friends, James (John Miller), Aivaaq loses control after smoking crack and attacks James. Qalli tries to stop James from killing his friend, and in doing so, ends up accidentally killing James himself. Rather than tell the truth, they decide to hide the body and lie, as these accidental death plots so often go. The aftermath involves a tangled web of guilt, betrayal, and selflessness.
Maclean has a way with the camera. He uses a lot of handheld work, destabilizing the viewer as the boys’ lies unravel. The director highlights the landscapes and their contrast to the interiors simply by using the snow to whiten everything into a blinding mass. When scenes take place outside, it’s often as if the snow-ridden ridges and valleys engulf the characters. It’s menacing without being too scary; the Alaska in this film is a wasteland akin to Appalachia in “Winter’s Bone.”
Though Maclean has talent as a director, it’s a little more difficult to see how his script was chosen by the Sundance Institute to be made as a feature film, not to mention winning the award for Best First Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. The story doesn’t really gain momentum after the first act; we know that eventually the boys will be made to confront their murder. The story is actually quite unoriginal, taking place in a beautifully unique setting. Many of the script’s lines, whether it’s due to poor writing or amateur acting, fall flat, becoming silly rather than profound.
One theme that Maclean explores in the first half, but completely drops by the end, is the combination of social forces acting on these boys. We initially see them performing a traditional dance of their tribe, and then they go to a party where they freestyle rap for their friends amidst alcohol and drugs, including crack. It’s easy to see how these conflicting messages could cause strife in an isolated community, but Maclean ignores this interesting quandary in favor of a traditional murder mystery.
Considering that the actors are amateur locals, their mastery of the material is quite impressive. Most chilling is Irelan’s performance as Aivaaq. The audience loves him because he’s charming, but cocky, and he gets the sympathy vote as his life is going nowhere. He loves Qalli as a brother, and, in the end, proves to be a worthy hero. Patkotak is less convincing, as the role requires a much higher range of emotion since most of the focus is on this character. The supporting actors are all decent, but they don’t get enough screen time to really affect the emotional impact of the story.
The film got some attention out of Sundance and Berlin, but not enough to attract a big-name distributor. It’s clear why, when there are no star turns, the landscape is bleak and the story doesn’t exactly reveal anything new. However it is a small film worth seeing, simply for the chemistry between Irelan and Patkotak as best friends and the exposure to a new environment. With those two things going for it, it should land a small deal, enough to place it in a few big cities. It’s a waste though, to have such a beautiful landscape and fill it with such a banal story. [C-]