Qalli (Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Qutuq Irelan) are typical teenage guys: hitting on female classmates, getting wasted at house parties, obsessing over hip-hop. A trash-talking extrovert, Aivaaq even fancies himself an MC, while Qalli, the quiet one, writes beats for his buddy to rhyme over; both of them dream of escaping the dead-end pitfalls that have befallen their working-class parents and peers. Anyone reading this description of Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's feature couldn't be blamed for thinking he'd made a '90s 'hood drama, which he essentially has---with a twist. These two boys-to-men are part of an Inupiat community in Barrow, Alaska, scooting around on snowmobiles instead of motorcycles and hunting seals instead of shooting hoops. Yet the song remains the same: The South Bronx and South Central L.A. have simply ceded their genre to the region of Northern Lights.
A product of the Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Program, On the Ice threads in glimpses of an underrepresented culture (MacLean shares his characters' heritage) while neither treating Inupiat traditions like a novelty nor relying on them too heavily. Regrettably, the filmmaker doesn't have much else up his sleeve: As the tundra-noir part of the narrative kicks in---the duo is involved in a tragedy, then a cover-up---the film slowly, stiffly sputters to an eventual halt. More than a moral dilemma is needed to make up for the uneven performances, slack pacing and wonky dialogue, and while MacLean certainly has a keen eye, the rest of his storytelling facilities haven't quite caught up with it yet.
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