Don’t Get Killed in Alaska (2014)
Cast: Oliver Dennis, Rosemary Dunsmore, Ben Lewis
Directors: Bill Taylor
Editor’s Notes: Don’t Get Killed in Alaska is making its theatrical release on November 7th at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.
A common fault of smaller films like Don’t Get Killed in Alaska isn’t a lack of execution, but a lack of confidence. Writer and director Bill Taylor (in his feature directorial debut) very nearly pulls off a convincing and emotional family drama, but instead muddies the narrative and the emotional pull with some unnecessary deviations. Rather than focusing truthfully on impressionable tomboy Liney (Tommie-Amber Pirie) by concentrating the film’s time and emotional beats on her interactions with her family, the film is stuffed full of side-projects, from the hunky naive boyfriend Dan (Ben Lewis) to a shady drug deal gone wrong.
A common fault of smaller films like Don’t Get Killed in Alaska isn’t a lack of execution, but a lack of confidence.
This shady deal opens the movie, and introduces Don’t Get Killed in Alaska as more of a thriller than a coming of age story; fading in from black, and featuring unbearable nervousness from both Liney and Dan, the opening few minutes establish this plot point as important and potentially dangerous. From here we proceed across Canada, as Liney visits both of her divorced parents, while also making a stop to more urban settings where her brother lives in relative luxury. With each stop, Liney tries to reestablish her connection to her family as it once was, and in turn more accurately discovers the reason they are all so emotionally distant now. All of this happens under the grand plan that Liney is soon leaving for Alaska to work on a fishing boat for the winter. Fresh out of money and direction, she and Dan have elected to take advantage of a friend’s offer to cash in on a short season’s worth of work.
Among the greatest accomplishments of this film is how convincing the commonalities of the family unit are portrayed. Many films have a tendency to focus more on the look of a family by casting certain actors, or at the very least they primarily try and establish a family based on material traditions or maxims. Don’t Get Killed in Alaska carefully crafts Liney’s kin through personality, a more persuasive but enormously more difficult approach. As Liney opens old wounds, prodding her brother or her father for their impressions of the family, each member of the family retorts heatedly, adding their own shade of personality to a shared temperament of anger. This fact is not always subtle, and is even discussed on occasion, but this in no way dulls the obvious origin of why the family is now so estranged.
Despite a lack of focus, lead Tommie-Amber Pirie is particularly effective toeing the oft-mishandled line between restraint and boredom. While the character of Liney is verbally overmatched by the likes of her boyfriend, her parents, and especially her brother, Pirie emotionally hits all her marks more convincingly and inwardly than all her on-screen counterparts. Liney’s frustration is remarkably reserved without being understated, making it all the more frustrating the film doesn’t center more wholly around her thoughts rather than just her travels.
Don’t Get Killed in Alaska carefully crafts Liney’s kin through personality, a more persuasive but enormously more difficult approach.
However, a greater motive or connection to Liney’s past never comes to fruition, and the film’s third act stalls accordingly. With each stop along her journey, she’s treated as a naive quasi-adult, which most children and siblings around her age find incredibly frustrating and constraining. Instead of spending the runtime deciding between shedding her familial shackles or falling into the comforts of her childhood home, we simply learn more about her quest for startup cash and her blossoming relationship with Dan. These narratives are built on the assumption that the cash is necessary and that Dan is and will be an important piece of Liney’s life, but both are shown to be untrue as the film progresses. This not only lessens their importance in her life, but to the film itself.
Still, the hereditary link between Liney and her family members is uncanny and is where the strength of the film is derived. Her immediate interactions with her father appear like a young adult returning home, still knowing when to get her father a beer, and still playing with the figurine beside her bed as though she’d slept there last night. Contrasting this brief stay with her brief stop just nights earlier at her estranged mother’s house is enormously effective, giving credence to her brother’s point of view that their mother left the family for a reason. While the presence of alcohol flows throughout her stops across Canada, Liney’s father and his two beers are pointedly restrained compared to her mother’s bottles of rosé. This type of subtlety is unevenly distributed throughout the screenplay, but is undoubtedly powerful when leveraged properly.
In the end, the director crafts an exceptionally cogent familial setting around a strong performance from Pirie, but lacked either the vision or the direction to truly focus on the interesting pieces of the story. It isn’t simply that Don’t Get Killed in Alaska didn’t effectively cover the material it wanted, but rather that when it did hit the mark, it was so emotionally engaging. In this manner, the screenplay was frustrating as it deviated between incredibly interesting relationships and inexplicable side courses, and couldn’t quite capture the energy so wonderfully put forth by the cast.
It isn’t simply that Don’t Get Killed in Alaska didn’t effectively cover the material it wanted, but rather that when it did hit the mark, it was so emotionally engaging. In this manner, the screenplay was frustrating as it deviated between incredibly interesting relationships and inexplicable side courses, and couldn’t quite capture the energy so wonderfully put forth by the cast.