TRANSPORTING ITS AUDIENCE to the isolated reaches of small-town Alaska, On the Ice offers a tidy little crime drama. With an entirely Inuit cast, Iñupiaq writer/director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's first feature is the landmark of several other "first" claims, and if you can get through its opening chapter—littered with cringe-inducing dialogue and freestyle rapping on the part of its amateur cast—you'll find a proficient tale of an accidental murder, made remarkable by its frozen, massive landscapes.
Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) is an impassive teenager from a good family whose best friend Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) is not so blessed (an early scene features him pouring whiskey on his passed-out mother's face). Qalli is expected to go to college; Aivaaq's girlfriend thinks she's pregnant, so he plans to join the workforce right away. It's an ordinary blend of crossroads among the relationships of young people, and other than the sinister foreshadowing of meth pipes that occasionally show up at their friends' parties, life is more or less normal.
That's interrupted when Qalli, Aivaaq, and their pal James (John Miller) set out on their snowmobiles to hunt seal—and, one altercation later, James is dead. And so On the Ice becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the boys and a highly trained tracker who's hot on their heels, who also happens to be Qalli's dad.
Other than its physical and cultural setting, Ice isn't terribly groundbreaking: The bones of the story don't contain many surprises, and even the intrigue of the father-son connection between investigator and suspect never amounts to anything unpredictable. Ice's best feature is Lol Crawley's cinematography; the long pans across stretches of ice and snow are breathtaking and intimidating, pocked with treacherous cleaves opening into a deadly abyss of freezing ocean more chilling than any manslaughter. Or battle rap.