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On the Ice
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by Jay Seaver

"Dashiell Hammett's Alaska."
5 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: Thrillers like "On the Ice" are traditionally set among shadows and night, with the lines and crags on the actors' faces all the backstory needed to explain how they wound up in such a spot. Of course, you don't get shadows if the sun never sets, so it's entirely appropriate that this film's twisty plot is navigated by a fine young cast.

Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) are best friends in a small Alaska town, but they are on different trajectories. Responsible Qalli is headed to college in the fall, while Aivaaq has just learned that his girlfriend Uvlu (Sierra Jade Sampson) is pregnant. The morning after a party, they're going seal-hunting with their classmate James (John Miller), but Qalli arrives late, to find Aivaaq and James in a serious fight, and before he really knows what is going on, James is dead. The truth doesn't seem to be an option, so they do what they can to misdirect the authorities to make it look like an accident. Of course, no plan is perfect, and something seems off to Qalli's father Egasak (Teddy Kyle Smith), head of the local search & rescue team.

On the Ice is not an extraordinarily complicated movie; writer/director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean and his cast lay out just about everything the audience needs to know about the characters and the situation in the first ten or fifteen minutes. It is, however, the sort where the next complication follows logically and inevitably - not just because the plans are flawed mechanically, but because human nature in both general and specific cases will not be denied. MacLean makes the plot twists interesting in a number of specific, interesting ways - scenes where geography is important are shot clearly, blows to the head produce realistic concussion-like symptoms, and James's girlfriend Michelle (Adamina Kerr) has an interesting role.

Not a large role - as much as Sierra Jade Sampson and Adamina Kerr are totally believable as Uvlu and Michelle, this is not their story. Like John Miller as James, what they do is give us good background as teenagers in a small town and give a look at what the actions of Qalli and Aivaaq lead to; Kerr is especially good in her scenes with Patkotak. The two leads are quite exceptional, especially Josiah Patkotak, who bucks convention by actually playing older than his actual age. He anchors the movie, showing us a guy who even before the events out on the ice was burdened by the expectations placed on him as the good one by his family and in many ways the whole town. It's as good a portrayal of humanity being chipped away by pragmatism as you'll see, the type where Qalli could become the story's villain and it wouldn't be clear just when he'd crossed the line. Frank Qutuq Irelan is nearly as good as the slacker breaking much more quickly, although in many ways this is just the last push.

The unique setting also makes the movie a pleasure to watch. Noir-ish stories which thoroughly muddle morality have been told with teenagers and in this sort of environment before, but this combination at least feels fresh. The all-white landscape can be blinding but does reveal its own geography, and although the details are Alaska- and Eskimo-specific, the general feel of the town could be any rural community. The way MacLean uses the characters' speech is also kind of clever: There are clear generational differences, with Qalli's grandmother almost entirely speaking in Iñupiaq, while the different cadence to Egasak's English highlights a generation gap between his generation and that of their children.

That's one of a number of details that make "On the Ice" a darn good little thriller. It's a great mix of solid storytelling and fairly unusual details, but most importantly, it's good at getting the audience leaning forward just a bit, curious about what's going to happen next.

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originally posted: 05/03/11 14:09:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Berlin International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

10/06/11 T Serlet Good acting, bad pacing 4 stars
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