Friday, March 2, 2012

On the Ice

Inupiat director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean has set his feature debut, "On the Ice" (not to be confused with the recent Greg Kinnear black comedy "Thin Ice"), in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States (population: approximately 4,200), and its fascinating milieu and strong sense of place are by far its best features. The market is called Arctic Grocery. The cleaners: Arctic Cleaners. Snowmobiles seem to outnumber cars, and get more use. Alcoholism lurks everywhere. (A boy comes home to find his mother passed out drunk. "She made it three months this time," he tells his friend.) The sun doesn't set for six months at a stretch. It's remote, but not undeveloped, and it's amazing to think of its way of life as part of the American experience. Because we almost never see this landscape or these people depicted in film, it's natural to want to spend time with them and learn more about them.

Unfortunately, MacLean has shackled his film to a silly plot involving two high school seniors and best friends who, on the ice outside town one day, get into a clumsily staged fight with a third young man, who ends up losing his life. The friends decide to dump his body and return to town with a fabricated story about his death which comes increasingly under both scrutiny (one of the boys' fathers heads the local search-and-rescue outpost) and the strain of their own consciences. The plot's lead bars a prison make, as you end up resenting the film for wasting its fresh setting on such an undergraduate story. It doesn't help that the performances are uniformly wooden or that the boys look and act so guilty when they get back, it's almost like an SNL skit ("I don't know _what_ you're talking about!").

I'd love to see these people in this place in a different film, by a director who knows what a treat it is for us to see something new and either doesn't feel the need for much of a plot or, if he does, imbues it with genuine tension and suspense.

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