SIFF MOVIE: On the Ice (2011)

Alaska Natives Qalli and Aivaaq have been best friends since they were little.  Now that their senior year of high school is over, though, things have started to grow a little strained for the boys, primarily because Aivaaq has picked up a drug habit and knocked up his girlfriend, while Qalli is planning to leave their tiny Barrow community in a few months to go to college and create a better life for himself.   Suddenly, two boys who had everything in common are coming to realize they’re about to take dramatically different paths in life, and the friction this causes between them is hard to ignore.

But ignore it they do.  Or at least, they try to.  And so, thinking mostly in the now instead of the down-the-line, the two boys are spending as much of their last summer together as possible, going to parties, talking about girls, and hanging out with their friends.   In keeping with Inupiat traditions, both are also avid hunters, and one afternoon they decide to spend the following day on a seal hunt out on the ice, along with their friend James.

The night before their hunt, though, all three are at a party together.  Qalli leaves early, needing to go visit his grandmother, but Aivaaq and James end up getting hammered — and high — and stay up all night.  Since they’re awake in the wee hours, they set out on the hunt early together, sharing James’s snowmobile.  When Qalli gets up and goes to Aivaaq’s, his mother tells him the other two boys already set out, and Qalli heads off to follow their tracks.

A short drive later, Qalli sees his two friends far ahead of him, but they’re no longer on the snowmobile, nor does it look like they’ve started the hunt.  Then suddenly, one of them throws a punch at the other, and Qalli hits the gas.  When he finally gets close enough to intervene, however, the fight has gotten way out of control.  Aivaaq is down, and James is holding a shovel, getting ready to whack him in the head.  Aivaaq pulls out a knife, Qalli races into the fray, and the next thing they know, James is lying on the ice, dead from a stab wound to the neck.

Panicked, Aivaaq wants to take James back to town right away and tell the truth about what’s happened.  It was an accident, after all.  Right??  But when Qalli looks down and sees a crack pipe, he realizes Aivaaq is high and that the cops would undoubtedly arrest him, maybe even trying him for murder.  With a baby on the way!  In an attempt to protect his friend, Qalli quickly decides the only option is to hide the body, which shouldn’t be too hard in the enormous expanse of ice outside of Barrow.  All they have to do is find a hole somewhere and drive James into the water below on his snowmobile.  Then it looks like an accident — people accidentally drive into holes and drown sometimes, after all, and their bodies are rarely recovered.  It seems like the perfect plan.

Which, of course, means it’s absolutely doomed from the start.

Complicating matters, Qalli’s father is the head of the local search and rescue squad, and also a savvy tracker.  The boys tell him what happened to James — the lie, anyway — and he immediately puts together a search party to try to find him.  But when Dad sees the patterns of tracks and footprints, and the hole in the snow where the boys had dug out all the bloody ice to hide the evidence of the fight, he begins to get suspicious, thinking Aivaaq had killed James and lied to Qalli about what had happened.  As the questions pile up, the already-fragile Aivaaq starts to crack under the pressure, and Qalli is forced to decide which is worse for his pal:  the truth or the lie.

Especially considering the fact the truth is not quite what Aivaaq thinks it is. . .

This is a wondeful film that takes us deep into the small, rural world of the beautiful, frozen town of Barrow, a place I’ve been fascinated by myself since I first learned of its existence while in college (I used to read the forecast for all the cities listed in the paper and it was always FREEZING there, even in the summer, so I looked it up to learn where it was and immediately fell in love with the photos and stories of the Inupiat culture I found).  The scenery is stunning — STUNNING, I say — and the ice itself is so pivotal to the story it practically becomes a character all its own.  The way it shifts — unpredictably, quickly, helpfully, disastrously — serves as the perfect metaphor for the friendship between Qally and Aivaaq, and the culture of the Inupiat natives living on that ice provides another complex layer to this otherwise somewhat predictable story.  (Nice, also, to finally see Barrow in a film that DOESN’T involve blood-sucking vampires, though I did love 30 Days of Night too, I confess.)

I was truly mesmerized by this film, and was especially moved by the ending, though I wasn’t terribly blown away by the acting, which was mostly amateurish (except for Frank Qutuq Irelan, who was incredible as Aivaaq;  Josiah Patkotak (Qalli), on the other hand, was either naturally terrible at expressing emotion, or trying to ACT naturally terrible at expressing emotion, and either way, his blunted affect made it hard to get a read on or take much of a liking to him).

I was pleased to see this film took a jury prize (for best new director) at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) this year.  It’s not the film I would have selected for that prize myself, but I can certainly understand why it was chosen.  This is a unique, gorgeous, emotional movie about the harshest kind of coming-of-age — the kind that rips a childhood relationship wide open and exposes all the cracks and frailties of the kids who lie within.  Highly recommended, so keep an eye out for it on DVD over the next few months!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Featurette from Sundance]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Josiah Patkotak, Teddy Kyle Smith, Denae Brower, Tara Sweeney, Frank Qutuq Irelan

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