A drama that should feel as elemental as its setting comes across as stilted and unconvincing in “On the Ice.” Even d.p. Lol Crawley’s starkly beautiful lensing of the arctic tundra can’t prop up this poorly motivated saga of two teenage boys who find themselves with a dead body on their hands. A rare film set among the Inupiaq people of northern Alaska, writer-director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s debut feature is already the beneficiary of high-profile Sundance and Berlin berths and will likely enjoy additional fest-circuit exposure as an ethnographic slot-filler. Commercial prospects look otherwise frigid.
Developed through the Sundance Institute’s Native filmmakers program, pic is billed in the production notes as “a story that can happen anywhere,” which is part of the problem. While “On the Ice” offers a unique immersion in the language and customs of the Inupiaq culture in MacLean’s hometown of Barrow, Alaska, the harrowing moral journey it serves up — part “A Simple Plan,” part Cain and Abel — feels artificially applied to these rural environs, rather than emerging organically from regional specifics.
Seventeen-year-olds Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) are as close as brothers, though they’re different in most respects. Soft-spoken Qalli plans to leave for college in the fall, while the irrepressible, less responsible Aivaaq talks of getting a job to support his pregnant girlfriend. Qalli comes from a sheltered family; Aivaaq lives with his alcoholic single mom.
The early reels ably convey the feel of an isolated small town where the men hunt seals and walruses for food, everyone gets around on snowmobiles and the sun never sets between May and August. Digging deeper beneath this rustic surface, pic captures the reckless vibe of the local youth, with their enthusiasm for hip-hop and crystal meth, lightly foreshadowing the violence that will soon erupt.
Riding out on the tundra one morning, Qalli sees Aivaaq come to physical blows with his friend James (John Miller) and tries to intervene. With both Aivaaq and James under the influence, weapons come out, a three-way scuffle ensues, and James winds up dead, leaving a powdery red stain on the snow.
Dramatic buildup to this fatal skirmish is nonexistent, and the same can be said of likely viewer investment in the fallout, as Qalli and Aivaaq hide the body and try to pass it off as a disappearance without rousing police suspicion. The sense of conflict for conflict’s sake becomes only more pronounced as the townsfolk come together to mourn James’ probable death, and guilt and uncertainty begin to strain the boys’ friendship in predictable and increasingly whiny ways.
Patkotak and Irelan never forge a meaningful connection with each other or the audience, and scenes in which the two young men dodge questions from the community strike incongruously melodramatic notes. Thesps are all non-pros, and the generally inexpressive nature of the English-language performances, some of which seem to have been given phonetically, serves as an apt reminder that regional authenticity is no substitute for emotional truth.
Given its harsh, forbidding terrain and eerie daylight-noir atmosphere, the tundra makes an ideal thriller backdrop, and Crawley’s 35mm cinematography shows off the screen-filling horizons and snow-blanketed landscapes to arresting effect. Other tech contributions are fine, though Izler’s music underscores key moments in too obvious a manner when silence is called for.