If nothing else, On the Ice has ethnographic interest on its side. As far as I know, no other film has focused on the lives of members of the Iñupiat people in the northern Alaskan city of Barrow, and the opening scenes of Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s debut feature establish this community as one in which its inhabitants straddle the fence between older traditions (hunting for sport, “singspiration” gatherings to mourn the dead) and more modern influences (such as the two main characters Qalli and Aivaaq’s affection for hip-hop). Alas, ethnographic interest isn’t enough to refresh its overly familiar tale of accidental murder, nagging guilt, and broken friendships—thematic territory that was mined to more compelling effect by Christopher Nolan 10 years ago in his Alaska-set remake of the 1997 Norwegian psychological thriller Insomnia.
Even MacLean’s most interesting visual conceit rehashes Insomnia in a way. On the Ice is set during a time of year in Alaska when the sun never sets, and some of cinematographer Lol Crawley’s more memorable widescreen images (long shots that emphasize the vast expanses of snow and ice as relatively insignificant human figures trudge through them, an effect intensified by the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and use of 35mm) exploit this 24/7-daylight setting to mildly unnerving effect. (On the basis of his work here and in Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Crawley has a knack for using the full expressive potential of any given location.) Crawley’s best efforts, though, can’t quite overcome the rather awkward performances of its mostly nonprofessional cast.
For a film that intends to elicit a certain measure of empathy for its two confused young protagonists, especially after Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) accidentally kills a mutual friend of his and Aivaaq’s (Frank Qutuq Irelan), then tries to cover up his crime by essentially making his friend believe he did it, it’s telling that the most sympathetic character turns out not to be either of those two, but Qalli’s father, who’s not only the one with the most developed sense of morality (he’s willing to risk implicating his own son if it means finding out who committed the murder), but the one played by the most openly expressive actor (Teddy Kyle Smith). Patkotak and Irelan have an easy rapport with each other in their scenes together, but on their own they’re blank slates; Patkotak, in particular, is so recessive that some may find it difficult to emotionally connect with the character and his circumstances. Here’s one instance where a director’s choice to rely on nonprofessionals for local authenticity seems to have backfired; the moral dilemmas in On the Ice ultimately fail to resonate, Qalli’s concluding plea for his flawed humanity coming off as strangely hollow.