Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a reviewer on the stuck-in-limbo PBS show Ebert Presents At the Movies, stated on one of the last episodes that with film, context is everything. What one knows about a particular project—the director and their previous work, the source material, the studio releasing it, etc.—should all be taken into consideration when assessing its worth.
In this reviewer’s opinion, however, that’s pretty much hokum. Whether in a classroom, a multiplex, your living room, or on a tablet, films should ideally be able to stand on their own merit, exclusively within the boundaries of the first frame to the last, with no outside information helping or harming them. Zookeeper still sucks regardless of how one feels about The Wedding Singer (which had the same director).
But then a film like On the Ice comes along, which makes it hard to ignore the fact that many Sundance organizations around the country have donated money to get it off the ground. That many big names in the world of indie film have lent their support, be it financial, emotional or otherwise. That it’s the first feature from writer/director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, an Iñupiaq Inuit who’s crafted a rare story featuring his own people, and consequently has support from some Native American organizations. Or even that the film kindly credits its extras.
So On the Ice certainly seems to have its heart in the right place, and on that basis alone might deserve some support. Unfortunately, within those pesky frame boundaries, it doesn’t live up to its promise.
The story, a thriller/drama, takes place at the top of the world in the small town of Barrow, Alaska (the same site of the famous whale rescue from the ’80s, coincidentally documented in the recent Drew Barrymore movie Big Miracle). Much like any small town in America, the teenage population shows a tendency toward rebellion motivated by isolation, in this case taking the form of an affinity for hip-hop music, and, unfortunately, drugs.
Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) are two friends who, the morning after a night of drinking and freestyle rap-battling at a party, venture out onto the ice beyond the town with another friend to go hunting for seals. Things … don’t go well. As a result, Qalli and Aivaaq have to lie and cover for each other when they return, which puts a strain on their friendship and their conscience.
MacLean casts the film with a lot of non-actors, which can work well with the right story, but is a big gamble when the emotional stakes are as high as they are here. Patkotak in particular, while an unconventional and potentially interesting choice to play the hero, has the sullen, inflectionless verisimilitude of a Napoleon Dynamite school kid, and his character makes a series of surprisingly self-serving choices, all of which makes it hard for the audience to rally behind him.
But perhaps most damaging is that for all the richness of the arctic landscape and the uniqueness of the Iñupiat people, the film is somehow not infused nearly enough with a sense of place or culture. Swap out the snowmobiles for cars and the ice for a forest, for example, and the story could really have happened any number of other places. It felt like a missed opportunity to delve into a world few people know about.
It’s not that On the Ice is bad, per se, it just reflects an inexperienced hand and, in the end, proves not much more than competent.
So if you believe in indie cinema and in the potential context of the future, by all means check MacLean’s debut out. But if you believe that films live or die between the frames, chances are you’ll be nothing but on the fence about On the Ice.
Director: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Writer: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Starring: Josiah Patkotak, Frank Qutuq Irelan, Teddy Kyle Smith
Release Date: Feb. 17, 2012 (limited)