Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 16th, 2022
Slash/Back (Nyla Innuksuk, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
As a middle-schooler, Maika has a lot on her mind. First, there’s the growing need for independence from her parents. Then there’s the occasional conflict within her peer group of girl classmates. She also has a younger sister who always wants to tag along, but while that may have been okay in the past, it is much less so now. Finally, those mysterious creatures known as boys are beginning to cause some heretofore unexpected reactions. That’s all par for the course among coming-of-age tales. What is much less normal is a far different kind of creature, looming literally just around the corner. That’s right, in Nyla Innuksuk’s debut feature Slash/Back, Maika and her peers must do battle not only with their own hormones, but with aliens, too.
It all starts out simply enough, almost like a documentary. A father and daughter, out in a boat amidst breathtaking scenery, prepare to hunt. He helps her steady the rifle, talking her through what needs to be done, and does his best to instill pride in their culture. They are both Inuit, and we are just off the coast of the hamlet of Pangnirtung, a little over 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, on Baffin Island. Just as she pulls the trigger, we cut to 6 years later, and that little girl is now the teenage Maika.
Pangnirtung—or Pang, as everyone calls it—may be small, but its population is lively. At least the kids are. Some of the adults look and act like this isolated life has taken a toll. Maika (Tasiana Shirley) hangs with a crew of three others: Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), Leena (Chelsea Prusky), and Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth). This last one is more frenemy than friend (with guilt on both sides), but soon everyone will be forced to put away their differences to defend Mother Earth.
For a lark, the fearsome foursome heads off in Maika’s father’s boat (“borrowing” both it and his rifle), only to find that their excursion proves actually dangerous when a polar bear attacks. Only this is no ordinary bear, moving like a zombie and initially impervious to bullets. They put him down, but out of his head sprout eel-like tentacles. If they get you, they puncture your head, take over your brain and body, and seek out new prey.
Part Dawn of the Dead, part War of the Worlds, part Super 8, part The Babysitters Club, Slash/Black takes its plethora of influences and becomes its own unique thing. All the while it is, more than anything, a tribute to the power of young First Nations women to overcome any and all obstacles, starting with the competition amongst them. Maika, Uki, Leena and Jesse must learn to bond, embrace their heritage, and thereby gain strength to defeat the invaders. Given the way the end title briefly morphs from “Slash/Back” to “Land/Back,” perhaps they’ll grow up to do that and more.
Of course, they are also firmly grounded in the global 21st-century world, all eyes on smartphones all the time. Until, that is, those tentacles come. Speaking of which, for a film made on a relatively small budget, Slash/Back does a great job with its effects. As it does with the performances of its young stars. All of that said, the movie is not perfect: there is a lot of on-the-nose dialogue and clunky plot developments that undercut the narrative goodwill. Still, the overall experience is a delight. Slash away!