Sundance 2011: ON THE ICE Review

Ryland Aldrich, Festivals Editor

One of the keys to the success of Sundance 2010's Dramatic Grand Jury winner (and Oscar nominee) Winter's Bone was its ability to tell a captivating story set in a world so rarely depicted on screen. That film brought us into the deep Ozarks to get a glimpse of a way of life familiar to few. This is exactly the case with one of this year's Grand Jury hopefuls, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's crime drama, On the Ice, which trades the back woods of Missouri for the high northern Arctic of Alaska. MacLean's impressive debut feature keeps the audience fully engaged in its characters' central conflict, while simultaneously introducing us to their fascinating frozen world.

On the Ice tells the story of two best friends on the verge of adulthood: Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan). Qalli is considering leaving his small town for college while Aivaaq contemplates starting a family with his newly pregnant girlfriend. These plans get severely complicated when an early morning hunting trip with their friend James turns violent. In an attempt to save an incapacitated Aivaaq, Qalli stabs James with Aivaaq's knife, leaving James dead, but unintentionally leaving Aivaaq thinking he committed the murder. The boys cover up the crime, setting off a chain of events that engulfs the community and puts their futures and friendship in peril.

MacLean shows incredible maturity for a young writer/director. His characters are nuanced and his story very tight. The complex plot decision to leave Aivaaq in the dark about the true source of James's death is handled very well and leads to some original drama. Patkotak and Irelan turn in impressive performances for first time actors. Though actually separated by 9 years and growing up over 500 miles apart, the two play off each other with a comfort and conflict of boys who have known each other since birth.

A quick Google mapping of Barrow, Alaska, shows just how remote the film's location is. At 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Barrow is one of the northernmost communities in the world. There are no roads in or out of Barrow and the claustrophobia is unmistakable. This isolation plays a dual role in the film. MacLean does an excellent job of exploring how an isolated community is affected by a tragic event and how the guilt of their crime isolates the boys from their community at such an emotionally crucial time.

The real success of the film comes in the taste it gives us of what life is like for kids growing up in this environment. Hip hop music and culture plays a big role in the film. Aivaaq refers to their crew during a freestyle rap as arctic thugs. This sets up an interesting juxtaposition of urban values in a decisively rural setting. MacLean raises questions about the acceptance of violence and drug use in a small community, while avoiding any urge to hit the audience over the head with a message. This film tells a captivating story in a fascinating new setting and points to very promising things to come from MacLean.

[ Ryland Aldrich is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He blogs at enderzero.net ]

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