Movie Review: ON THE ICE
Eskimos may not wear their pants low, but they can throw down a rhyme and get a girl into trouble. Swinging knives and shovels, getting high and shooting their rifles, it’s a cold world out there for an Inuit. (This is as far as I will go with crowd-pleasing puns. I already feel a little dirty.)
Barrow, Alaska, where the story of On The Ice takes place, is the northernmost city in America. It is also the director’s hometown. The cruel arctic winter that hit Europe this year is a standard fare in Barrow. In fact, right now, as I am writing this, the temperature there is at negative 27 Fahrenheit. The Arctic Ocean surrounds this tiny outpost of civilization. It almost seems like the water is readying to swallow it, since the many inland lakes appear like an invasion of water, slowly permeating the soil.
The frigid landscape, so white it hurts your eyes, is more than just a backdrop. It adds an unexpected dimension to the drama. It heightens one’s senses, making a viewer alert to his own body heat, and ability to sustain it. Perhaps it’s just my feeble psychological makeup and maybe I am too susceptible to powers of persuasion, but I felt the chill in the cinema. Observing the motionless, relentless landscape of snow and ice, you feel your own breath escaping in visible ribbons. It is your warmth that is stolen from you.
Still, when you hear Aivaaq breathe out “Inuit, please” you know you’ve arrived on familiar territory: while these kids never lived in an inner city, the local youth strongly identifies with the hip-hop culture. On The Ice is an effective social study. Family dynamics, traditional culture and its co-existence with modern influences inform the actions of the protagonists. Here, you have to rely on others: there is no making it on your own. In a world where search and rescue is an occupation, where going to a friend’s house for a party involves hopping on a snowmobile, struggle for survival seems an unspoken part of a daily routine. Surely, one must be aware of the dangers of hypothermia when they are putting on gloves. Surely, one understands the grim possibilities of thin ice when going out hunting, forced to rely on weather reports and the gear’s proper maintenance.
The basic story line is fairly straightforward. Three boys venture out into the wilderness to hunt seal, only two come back. Accidental killing covered up by the teenagers for fear of repercussions allows for several conflicts to play out. Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (both the writer, and director) did an excellent job using relatively simple premises to display existential conflict and address many social issues that are relevant to society at large, not just within one ethnic group or locale. There is the issue of addiction to crystal meth and alcoholism, and their correlation to poverty and lack of opportunities. The male competition, a question of who gets the girl is also explored. Qalli (Josiah Patkotak, under 16 years of age when cast), the accidental killer, had an eye on his victim’s girlfriend for a while. He does not hesitate, when a chance to make his move finally presents itself – only a day or so after he sank a knife into his buddy. Qalli is the good kid. But the role model is not such a saint after all. So Aivaaq observes, half-bitterly, half-satisfied, after discovering the depth of self-interest that guided his best friend’s actions. Qalli took advantage of Aivaaq’s drug induced memory lapse, misleading him.
On The Ice examines the primary conflict of becoming an adult. Nobody is an empty vessel to carry their parents’ hopes and dreams; nobody can be just a projection of expected behaviors. Egasak (Qalli’s father, rendered by Teddy Kyle Smith, whose diction is a thing of beauty) understands when to let go. His idea of who his son was is crushed. Yet he removes himself at last: “I cannot tell you what kind of person to be,” he tells Qalli.
The entire cast is fabulous, every single one of them. You are sure to find a tender spot for Rosabelle Kunnanna Rexford (Qalli’s aaka, i.e. grandmother). Sierra Jade Sampson (Uvlu) leaves a lasting impression despite limited screen time. She has an air of quiet intensity, a presence that is not to be ignored. The two male leads are nothing short of astonishing and the intimate drama leans heavily on their performances. Considering their age and lack of prior experience, they certainly put many a weathered actor to shame.
The director recreated a world: sensitively he absorbed his surroundings and found a way to translate his experience into a nuanced story. Barrow as a whaling town, with military operations and oil companies narrowly tied to its development, still heavily relies on hunting. According to the municipality’s website, the total population is at 4,429. Iñupiat Eskimos constitute just around 60 percent. The division of labor is still extremely traditional, based on sex. I did not see a single female in the fictional rescue party. Michelle, a seemingly strong-willed young woman will not take any action that could upset the public opinion, even if it clashes with her personal desires.
Perhaps that is the price to pay for living in a tight-knit community: deference to the general code of conduct, to expectations and traditions, is a prerequisite for acceptance and for survival. Maybe Aivaaq (the excellent Frank Qutuq Irelan) just follows the thread of inevitability. The shoes he has to fill are one hell of a tragic pair. All his acting out “gansta” style is his version of fulfilling the conventional obligations. Aivaaq’s seemingly inescapable fate is at the real core of the story.
On The Ice is a gripping narrative, well crafted and wonderfully intimate. The performances are natural, fluent, captivating. The seemingly simple visuals are breathtaking. It is difficult believe this is the very first full-length feature for Andrew Okpeaha MacLean – he had a dress rehearsal with a successful short that was used as a basis for this film. It was a truly lovely experience, unexpectedly warm.