Andrew Okpeaha Maclean’s drama “On The Ice” is a tightly wound, highly atmospheric drama that follows two best friends in a remote Alaskan town as they try to cover up the accidental killing of their friend. The film is worth seeing just for its depiction of life in this land of midnight sun and constant snow—there were lots of involuntary shivers in the audience when I saw it. But it’s also an intimate portrait of indigenous life (native dialects are frequently spoken) and a surprisingly effective thriller, boiling over with confused teenage emotion.
The unknown teen actors that make up the dramatis personae act earnestly, but if there was one fault with this film, it was that many lines didn’t ring true. Some scenes sounded more like a read-through to me than a real performance. Part of this might be attributable to the almost Midwestern cadence of the actors’ accents; I half expected William H. Macy from Fargo to suddenly show up and start giving advice on body disposal. Nonetheless, I’ve been spoiled recently with a slate of truly incredible first-timer performances, notably James Frecheville in “Animal Kingdom.” So perhaps I protest too much.
Aside from some hollow-sounding line reading, “On The Ice” is excellent all around. The cinematography makes the most of the incredibly bleak, icy landscape, and Maclean has taken care not to beautify the village or its inhabitants. There’s a sense of barely-concealed desperation in the teen stars and their families; when the protagonist (Josiah Patkotak) talks about going to college, “getting out” really seems like a life-or-death decision.
“On The Ice” won the “Best First Feature” award at this year’s Berlinale, and also showed at Sundance as well as P-town. Here’s hoping it gets national distribution—mark Maclean as one to watch!