‘Slash/Back’ Review: ‘Attack the Block’ Meets ‘The Thing’ as Inuit Teens Save the World

Indigenous director Nyla Innuksuk imagines an alien-invasion thriller that works on multiple levels, empowering the community in which she made it.

Courtesy of SXSW

In “Slash/Back,” something sinister from outer space lands a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, and humanity’s first line of defense proves to be a group of Inuit girls armed with nothing but their wits and a bunch of traditional hunting and fishing tools. In most low-budget alien-invasion movies, the heroes/victims are fairly generic, whereas the extraterrestrial threat is what draws the crowd. But Native helmer Nyla Innuksuk (who co-wrote with Ryan Cavan) turns that equation inside out, making this spunky band of save-the-world teens the main reason to see her movie — although the novel far-north location and reasonably fresh monster effects don’t hurt.

Innuksuk shot her debut in and around Pangnirtung, a tiny fishing community in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, where the sun never sets. Surrounded by snowy tundra, this gorgeous, remote location looks out on distant mountains, suggesting a less-intense version of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” during an early scene, when a tentacle lashes out from a smoking hole in the ice, killing an American geologist. That’s a bloody but satisfying tease of what’s to come, after which things take a turn into more kid-friendly territory on both sides of the camera.

Working in the spirit of “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl” director Robert Rodriguez, Innuksuk evidently made the film as much for adolescent audiences as for the participants themselves, holding acting workshops from which she assembled her young cast. Tasiana Shirley plays stir-crazy Maika, who wears a leather jacket with the words “No Justice on Stolen Land” spray-painted across the back and who dreams of leaving this backwater for somewhere more exciting. Her parents have given up fighting, whereas she and her friends — Jesse (Alexis Vincent-Wolfe), Leena (Chelsea Pruksy) and Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth) — still hope to make a difference, but don’t know what to do with their frustrated energy.

Not yet old enough to drive, they’re a spunky and defiant group of rebels who scheme and swear like real teens — “Nobody fucks with the girls from Pang!” goes their battle cry — though the actors’ inexperience shows a bit during dialogue scenes, which blend English with subtitled Inuktitut. This is one of those cases, not uncommon with child actors, where the film might have benefited from being performed entirely in a foreign language, thereby focusing our attention on their terrific screen presence, rather than their slightly stilted line readings. At the SXSW Film Festival, where “Slash/Back” premiered to an enthusiastic response, audiences didn’t seem to mind the film’s amateur touches. Innuksuk approaches everything with such a generous, supportive spirit, it seems churlish to focus on shortcomings in a film with so much personality.

One afternoon, Maika and her friends take a boat without permission to explore the fjords, witnessing something inexplicable in the wilderness: what looks like a possessed mutant polar bear, its hide hanging loose as it lumbers ominously toward them. Suddenly, the creature attacks Maika’s little sister, Aju (Frankie Vincent-Wolfe), forcing the others to think quickly. Fortunately, Maika has been trained to hunt by her father, and she’s unusually gifted with a rifle and other weapons — as are her friends.

Uki immediately concludes that what they’re dealing with must be an ijiraq, a mythical shape-shifting creature not so different from the wendigo seen in last year’s “Antlers.” And maybe she’s right; the movie never really explains what we’re dealing with, though we do see it arrive in a column of pink light from the skies. To dispatch these unwanted guests, the girls realize, all it takes is an ulu knife or machete, plus a whole lot of courage. While this is quite possibly the easiest “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to prevent since Mel Gibson realized that aliens were allergic to water in “Signs,” it’s fun to watch these girls show just how tough they are in order to defend their community, while still worrying about such things as boys and being grounded.

Though it unfolds in full sun, rather than the dark of night, the ensuing standoff recalls 2011’s “Attack the Block” in the way it elevates teens who find themselves marginalized — or else entirely excluded — from mainstream movies. These girls have attitude, taking charge as the situation demands, their fight doubling as an empowerment metaphor for the Indigenous “Land Back” movement. Despite her limited means, Innuksuk succeeds in making the monsters seem intimidating, especially when as the creature passes from CG-enhanced wild animals to a lurching local police officer and fisherman — authority figures turned evil whom the girls must confront and overcome. “Slash/Back” seems bound to find a cult following, but it will mean the most to Inuit audiences, for whom standing up to invaders is more than just another genre-movie cliché.

‘Slash/Back’ Review: ‘Attack the Block’ Meets ‘The Thing’ as Inuit Teens Save the World

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition), March 13, 2022. Running time: 87 MIN.

  • Production: (Canada) A Mongrel Media presentation of a Scythia, Stellar Citizens, Mixtape VR, Red Moose Media production, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Creates, with the assistance of the Government of Nunavut, the Nunavut Film Development Corp., with the financial participation of the Shaw Rocket Fund. (World sales: Mongrel Media, Toronto.) Producers: Daniel Bekerman, Christopher Yurkovich, Alex Ordanis, Nyla Innuksuk, Stacey Aglok McDonald, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Ethan Lazar. Executive producers: Neil Mathieson, Hussain Amarshi.
  • Crew: Director: Nyla Innuksuk. Screenplay: Nyla Innuksuk, Ryan Cavan. Camera: Guy Godfree. Editor: Simone Smith. Music: the Halluci Nation, Michael Brook.
  • With: Tasiana Shirley, Alexis Wolfe, Chelsea Prusky, Frankie Vincent-Wolfe, Nalajoss Ellsworth. (English, Inuktitut dialogue)