★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
At the edge of the Arctic Circle, in an isolated and remote Inuit community under the unending daylight of the arctic summer, a group of teenage girls fights off boredom… and an alien invasion of Earth. This is the simple premise, executed earnestly, of the feature Slash/Back which had its world premiere at SXSW 2022.
Directed by Nyla Innuksuk
Makia (Tasiana Shirley) is a teenage girl, a hunter’s daughter, who is weary of being at the top of the world. Being cut off from most of the civilized world is a tedium, offering little of the worldly experiences she finds from the visions provided by her cell phone. Like many teens, she questions the value of the culture she is growing up in. Life as a hunter/gatherer in the arctic is not the life she has chosen, and she longs for a life more cosmopolitan.
Her town of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada (Pang for short) is a small hamlet of a little over 1,400 villagers, and there is little to do even in the long lazy summer where the sun goes down after midnight. Joining her are her best friend Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), the stalwart ethical soul of her group, the brash tomboy Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth) who rather likes it in Pang, and the privileged Leena (Chelsea Prusky) who gets to go to Winnipeg every year.
Together they bide their time riding mountain bikes, talking about boys, and dreaming of how to get out of town. The group journey by boat out to a remote cabin to hang out, and end up saving Makia’s little sister Ayu from a strangely malformed polar bear. The girls, as it turns out are pretty good shots. Unbeknownst to them, the malformed bear is a host to an awful alien parasite, and they did not kill it. In a knowing nod, Jesse describes the plot of John Carpenter’s The Thing to her mates, a harbinger of what is to come.
Returning back to Pang, most of the adult population of the town heads out for an annual celebration of square dancing and drinking, leaving the teens to watch over the remaining children in the village. The squid/bear thing tracks them back to the village and after consuming a couple of unsuspecting villagers transforms them into cadaverous and scarecrow-like shambling semi-humans.
The girls have stepped away from their babysitting responsibilities, and head to a classically awkward teen party and try to play it cool with the boys from the town, only to be rudely interrupted as the stumbling alien monstrosities crash the party. The girls rally and round up their charges, and gear up to fight back and save their home from the creatures.
Nobody fucks with the girls from Pang!Jesse (Alexis Wolfe)
It’s a super simple premise that in the wrong hands would be a B-movie, but Nyla Innuksuk manages to infuse this premise with the soul of the community though. It very much registers of being of this unique place. While the story is generic, the location is not, and it is rather inspiring. It is also clear that there is some autobiographical input here.
Slash/Back provides a reflection of growing up in the most remote place in the world and examines what it means to embrace a cultural heritage of what is still a fairly tribal life in the arctic. It manages to do so while also delivering some stunning imagery, and punches well above its weight class relative to the visual effects and sound design.
There are times when the budget limitations show the seams. The plot provides armor for the jankiness of the monsters. The monsters move around awkwardly (There’s clearly a man in the bear suit and the human-infested are clearly wearing rubber masks) but there are some great moments as the tentacles burst from the monsters and the effects are fantastic. There is also no replacing the actual stunning stark beauty of the arctic in the summertime, with the wildflowers blowing and the majestic fjords of Baffin Island looming in the distance.
Credit also should be given to the sound of this movie. The music is breathy and pulsing, with a unique aboriginal and urgent feel. It is a unique soundtrack and when it gets rolling, your adrenaline naturally builds up. I do not know if the music is based on native sources, but it is a winning formula.
When reviewing a film like Slash/Back, it is almost as important to refrain from evaluating the film for what it is not, rather than what it is. This film is an extreme rarity, in that it is almost entirely cast of Nunavik villagers, from an area where acting is not a typical career option. As such, you have to forgive the stiff amateurism present within the acting. To get what amounts to more than twenty speaking roles out of a community of just over a thousand individuals is remarkable.
Despite the occasional awkwardness of the script delivery, you sense the heart in everything they do. It harkens back to a documentary from SXSW 2021 Alien on Stage, wherein a group of Cornwall bus drivers put on a stage production of the seminal sci-fi horror film Alien. The effusive beating heart of the community was on full display, and it is in here as well. The film questions the intrusion of modern devices in native cultures and lets the characters state the case of the value of the Inuit life, even if it takes them the whole movie to come around. Coming of age sometimes comes with some cultural awareness and reflection.
There are a few fun nuggets of the pressure of traditional vs modern culture. as when Makia was asked by a boy she likes why she didn’t like traditional country food she stated a preference for “KFC”, to which he responded with “Oh, expensive food!” And, as it turns out there really is a KFC in Pang! Probably a real-life Pang discussion. Nice touch. Extra crispy is probably extra expensive that far out.
I saw this almost back to back with another Canadian ethnic girl coming of age film, from the opposite side of the emotional and budget spectrum: Pixar’s Turning Red and I was struck by some of the similarities. Curious that they would drop at the same time. It also reminded me of a 2019 first-people-centric horror film Blood Quantum which dealt more directly with the analogy of Colonialism and Occupation or even something like the Australian Aboriginal zombie excursion Cargo where we get to see cultures rarely put on screen as told through the lens of a horror movie.
For all the local Pangnirtung actors in this film, not surprisingly this was their first movie. This might be the only film that these young women get to act in. But do you want to know what is really cool about this? If this movie is a reflection of what these girls really have gone through, where they undoubtedly have wondered what their lives will be going forward they can reflect back and realize that for at least one moment, they were MOVIE STARS on the big screen in Austin Texas.
Bravo, Ladies. I wish you the best of luck with your future and hope that you find more opportunities should acting be where you want to be. Nyla Inuksuk followed her dreams after living in a very similar Nunavit village (Igloolik) and still managed to come back and pay proper respects in the coolest way with this film.
Slash/Back is not yet rated and does not have a wide or streaming release date yet set.