Sebastian Mylnarski
 Alaska-set drama about a momentous secret holds cultural interest but can't sustain much tension.

PARK CITY (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Set in the Alaskan hinterlands, "On the Ice" occupies a solid-snow landscape where the whims of nature -- wind and snow patterns, cracking ice sheets -- can either bury or expose life-destroying evidence. In his feature debut, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean settles in among his native Iñupiaq community, focusing on two teens at a suspense-ready turning point.

Its sense of place is transporting. But many of the film's performances are as chilly as the Arctic Circle wind, and its deliberately laid-out suspense beats fail to catch fire. Arthouse appeal is modest, but many fest auds will embrace the view it offers of a people who have not abandoned old traditions even as mainstream American culture leaves its mark.

Chubby and soft-spoken, Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) is college-bound until a deadly accident threatens everything: Coming across his best friend (Aivaaq, played by Frank Qutuq Irelan) and another teen having a drunken brawl on the ice sheet outside of town, he intervenes and winds up putting a knife through Aivaaq's assailant's neck.

In their clumsy attempt to play the death off as an accident, the boys trigger the suspicions of Qalli's father Egasak (Teddy Kyle Smith, giving the performance that best communicates the everyday realities of life in this setting), who heads the local search-and-rescue team.

Egasak's refusal to ignore unanswered questions, and his calm prodding of the son he knows to be a good kid, gives On the Ice what momentum it has; a parallel thread in which Aivaaq's drunken, guilt-plagued misbehavior threatens to expose their secret is less convincing.

The film rests with Patkotak, though, and his character's increasingly bottled-up mood presents an obstacle the filmmakers can't quite hurdle. Only in the movie's closing scene does On the Ice start to make explicit the moral confusion that has lurked, underexploited, behind Qalli's sullen silence.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Production Companies: Treehead Films, Silverwood Films
Cast: Josiah Patkotak, Frank Qutuq Irelan, Teddy Kyle Smith, Adamina Kerr, Sierra Jade Sampson, John Miller, Rosabelle Kunnanna Rexford
Director-Screenwriter: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Producers: Cara Marcous, Lynette Howell, Marco Londoner, Zhana Londoner
Executive producers: Doug Dey, Susanne Adamski, Nick
Quested, Cary Fukunaga, Rick Rosenthal, Nick Morton, Greg Smith
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Chad Keith
Music: iZLER
Costume designer: Courtney McClain
Editor: Nat Sanders
Sales: William Morris Endeavor
No rating, 96 minutes