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‘On The Ice’: Boys With A Secret, And A Chill Inside

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 16, 2012

In Barrow, Alaska, they must be dancing in the streets. For the second time this month, a tiny town that sits north of the Arctic Circle has become a marquee name.

Along with Drew Barrymore and three stranded whales, Barrow became the unlikely star of the inspirational mammal-rescue picture Big Miracle. Now it serves as an arena for teen angst in the sympathetic feature debut of a young Inupiat filmmaker, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean.

In most respects, On the Ice is the kind of straight-ahead, underprivileged-teen drama beloved of Sundance audiences. Packed with teachable moments and a mostly non-pro cast, the film centers on two best friends who get into deep trouble when a fight with a third boy over a girl turns ugly.

The terrible accident that follows becomes a poorly hidden secret that keeps shame, guilt and long-festering resentment on the boil between two very different young men bound by old loyalties. Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) is a stolid, college-bound good boy from a supportive home, while his childhood buddy, Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan), struggles with the legacy of an alcoholic father who died young and the inattention of a mostly dead-drunk mother.

Crystal meth also hovers and occasionally moves in to occupy center stage. But it’s a minor player that MacLean rarely uses; he’s not in this to clout us over the head with quack sociology, or to define or demean the community in which he grew up.

Indeed, it’s not booze or drugs that threaten the young of this tribe so much as the icy landscape. It’s a cinematographer’s gift — the director of photography is Lol Crawley, who also shot Lance Hammer’s arresting extreme-indie Ballast — but a color-drained nightmare that might drive anyone to drink or drugs. (Or the impulsive violence that drives this film’s bare-bones plot.)

Big Miracle’s running joke was the lucrative tourism bonanza that came when the media flocked to cover the whale rescue, but On the Ice can’t afford such easy uplift. Just as an inner-city slum hems in its dwellers, so Barrow is marooned in an endless sea of white ice, relieved only by the bright red of the boys’ snowmobiles — and of the blood that flows from a fatal knife wound. No wonder that an Eskimo variant of hip-hop — alternating on the soundtrack with an eerie lunar score by Czech-born composer iZLER — serves as an exuberant survival anthem for the youth of Barrow, just as mutant rap forms do for marginalized native youngsters from North America to New Zealand.

Perhaps it takes an insider to tell a hopeful native tale without recourse to goo or mawkish wallowing. However depleted by the ills that plague a region dependent on a single industry that’s threatened by eco-collapse, MacLean’s Barrow clings to the vestiges of a once-vibrant ritual life. Staggering under the collective burden of poverty and the compound troubles it brings, the town’s damaged families — not least its feisty, take-no-crap girls, pregnant or not — still gather organically for the enchantingly named “sing-spiration” that will carry a dead member to the next world.

Many of their ceremonies may be gone or eroded beyond recognition, yet a father finds an inventive way to create a rite of passage for a suffering son and his friend, each groping for ways to tell the truth and move on. Where to, and how it works out, MacLean won’t tell us. But it’s a relief to know that this is one corner of America where helicopter parenting is not an option. Don’t all migrate at once. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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