Like plenty of teenagers everywhere, the high-schoolers in On The Ice smoke pot, talk shit about each other’s girlfriends and boyfriends, listen to hip-hop, and throw parties when their parents aren’t home. But they’re also Iñupiaq kids coming of age in isolated Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S., and the icy unfamiliarity of this remote but thoroughly lived-in locale turns a standard story of an accident and an attempted cover-up into something bracing. Director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, who expanded On The Ice from his 2008 short, grew up in the town where the film is set, and he presents a tangible sense of its day-to-day life—not as an exotic backdrop, but as a place that informs who these characters are, and the tragedy that catches them up.
Josiah Patkotak and Frank Qutuq Irelan play best friends whose lives are diverging—Patkotak is a promising student who’s going off to college, while Irelan is a goofball who recently got his girlfriend (Sierra Jade Sampson) pregnant. They’re content to spend their remaining time together freestyling (“Professional Eskimo / gangster in the snow”) and hunting for seals, but on an excursion to do the latter, Irelan gets in a fight with the crack-smoking John Miller. In the scuffle, trying to defend his friend, Patkotak unintentionally kills Miller, and the pair decides to dump the body and claim the boy went through the ice rather than confess to what happened.
The tension in On The Ice comes, perversely, from the closeness of the community. Patkotak’s father (Teddy Kyle Smith), who works in search-and-rescue, is convinced something suspicious has happened, and that it must be the ne’er-do-well Irelan’s fault. The ties of culture and family are balanced out by clearly limited options and the lurking shadows of addiction—Patkotak is all too aware that his friend is poised to tumble into some form of drug abuse, following the path of his alcoholic parents. The performances, all from non-professional local actors, are noticeably uneven, but the film is as much a portrait of a place as it is a narrative, and cinematographer Lol Crawley shoots the white-on-white polar expanses like they’re vistas stretching to the ends of the earth—which in a way, they are. The amount of space is both exhilarating and utterly isolating, as Patkotak leaves a house party to look out at a summer sun that isn’t going to set until August.