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'On the Ice': Powerful storytelling

Posted: February 16, 2012 - 1:01am

A good movie enlightens and reveals. It can take you to a place you’ve never been and introduce you to the humanity of its characters. “On the Ice” is such a movie.

I won’t describe the plot. In abstract however, “On the Ice” is about survival. Alaska is a tough place to live. And the toughest place to live in Alaska has to be Barrow. The Inupiat have thrived on the continent’s icy edge — a place where most mortals would wither — using their wits, strength, courage and knowledge passed down. It’s a way of life that has worked just fine for millenia. Perhaps though, this ancient culture of tough survivors has met its most formidable foe — pop-culture.

I didn’t know what to expect with “On the Ice”. I certainly didn’t expect to see the extent of hip-hop’s influence on the Arctic’s youth. What I ended up watching was like a cross between John Singleton’s “Boyz in the Hood” and John Sayle’s “Lone Star” — set in Barrow. That‘s a compliment; they’re great films. “On the Ice” is a gritty look at social dysfunction we would better recognize in a film about inner city Detroit. There is alcohol and drugs, parties and freestyle rap, but with an Inupiat flava — “Eskimo thugs,” as one character puts it.

This film depicts the real Barrow, the real Arctic, and a deadly Arctic Ocean. This isn’t the Hollywood Arctic Ocean where you can remove your gloves underwater to free a whale from a net and survive. No, this is how it is, Drew Barrymore. The Arctic is tough, deadly, and indifferent to human drama.

The film makes great use of the Arctic’s bleak whites, blues, and shadow. If color does make a surprising entrance, something is wrong. Maybe it is spray painted graffiti, or tattered window shades hinting at conditions within, or blood.

As for performances, the father, portrayed by Teddy Kyle Smith, is a searing portrayal of a parent’s love. A proud and smart man, he is desperate to save his son from the traps of peer pressure and dysfunction. It’s a great performance, not unlike Laurence Fishburne’s Furious in “Boyz in the Hood”. As to the other performances, some national critics have described the acting as wooden. I don’t know, but to me the acting rings true for the principle players.

“On the Ice” is a movie that finds conflict by depicting good people making bad decisions. It’s a story of good intentions gone awry. A story where there’s no real villain — except maybe alcohol. That’s the best kind of story. That makes sense to me. It’s better drama than that created by impossibly soulless bad guys and loner anti-heroes. As a wise man once said, if you can recognize the humanity in the “villain,” it makes you think about your own shortcomings. You can’t sit there and be superior to those on screen — not with this movie. With this movie you have to consider, if faced with similar choices, you too might be in the same predicament. That’s powerful story telling. “On the Ice” is a powerful movie.

• You can read and listen to Clint Farr’s past reviews at www.aloneatmovies.blogspot.com.

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