Rating: 4/5At its most basic, On the Ice is a not unfamiliar story. An accident happens. Someone dies. Bonds of friendship are tested as guilt builds and the questions keep coming. But what makes director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s first full-length film remarkable is the quiet, understated examination of a fairly simple morality tale. On the Ice is a well-paced drama that shows relationships through simple actions and language, not through overly melodramatic climaxes or overused clichés.
In the small town of Barrow, Alaska, everyone appears to know each other. It’s an American town like any other, where the teenage boys hang out and get high atop water towers, talk shit and go to parties. They spin records and perform sometimes embarrassing hip hop routines for their friends, talk about girls and basically act like the idiots in progress that teenage boys are. The only differences is in Barrow are that you can swap snowmobiles for bicycles, the boys go hunting for seal and the sun doesn’t go down for months at a time. The two Iñupiaq protagonists of On the Ice, Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) are lifelong friends, behaving more like brothers than buddies. Qalli is the shy one prepping for college, the DJ of the two. Aivaaq is brash, lovably loudmouthed; he’s the MC. Qalli is the son of an upstanding member of their little community, a highly moral man who says grace before meals and refers to meat hunted by the family as “real food.” Aivaaq’s mother is a town drunk whom another boy named James (John Miller) mockingly refers to as a skank, precipitating a sudden burst of violence. While that incident blows over and the three boys go on to party together and meet up for a hunting expedition, things quickly change. After the hunt, James doesn’t come back and the two friends decide to cover it up, dump his body in a crack in the ice and lie about what happened.
On the Ice expertly sidesteps the flaw all too common to first feature films and lets its characters reveal themselves organically, rather than through exposition or scenes of blatant telling/not showing. We see that Qalli and Aivaaq are a complementary duo through their easy chemistry together, in the way that the former awkwardly laughs while the latter maintains an easy loping stride. The film delves into the ways in which a tragedy affects an entire town with ease, with small ceremonies and the changing reactions of people standing in for the passage of time when the sun never sets. The two boy’s relationship grows strained in a wholly believable manner, with both cracking under the pressure of lies and murder in ways that are both realistic and surprising. Suffice it to say, nobody is a saint in this one. In fact, On the Ice is starkly ambiguous in terms of its central act of violence; no one is free of blame and no one is wholly guilty, which makes the tense climax all the much more unpredictable.
MacLean turns in an admirable directing job, managing the flow of the story well and using the austere Alaskan landscape to maximum potential. Long, wide shots of the ice dominate the film, creating an increasingly palpable sense of loneliness and isolation as the boys draw away from each other. Unfortunately, as first time leads, Patkotak and Irelan don’t fare nearly as well. While they convey their roles well through body language (particularly Irelan, whose increasing jitteriness is infectious), their lines and reactions come across flat and emotionless. They both often sound as though they’re reading their dialogue from just off camera, rather than as two young men caught in a tense, life or death situation. But, despite that, On the Ice succeeds in what it is: a drama that transcends a simple story and still draws you in and doesn’t let go until its final desolate, snowy shot.