Nyla Innuksuk’s Slash/Back opens to the singular vocal stylings of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Listeners familiar with the performer will understand the chugging, off-kilter energy such an association brings to bear, one suggestive of a primal, terrestrial character, and one the subsequent film aspires to and sometimes embodies but can’t always quite muster. The narrative sketch is a familiar one: alien invasion visits itself upon a small community, ragtag teens lead a grassroots resistance. Take that premise to its logical, low-budget limits, and set that story in the tiny Baffin Island hamlet of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, and you’re pretty close to the core of Innuksuk’s feature directorial debut.
The specific players here are de facto leader Maika (Tasiana Shirley), her best friend Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), hyperactive yarn-spinner Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), and reserved, phone-obsessed Leena (Chelsea Prusky). As the film opens, the bored foursome head out onto “the land” for a lazy afternoon, borrowing Maika’s dad’s boat and rifle. Good thing too, as Maika’s younger sister (who has followed them) is suddenly attacked by a strangely behaving polar bear, which Maika shoots. Uki, a committed fabulist, at first suspects mythic origins, which the others quickly dismiss, but after she later heads back out to further inspect, she is likewise attacked, changing her theory — correctly — to an alien invasion. The others are again reluctant to believe Uki’s outlandish claims, until a pair of local police officers are overtaken by said extraterrestrials, crashing a group hang with their newly writhing, withered bodies.
It’s here that Slash/Back is at its best. The FX work is a mix of practical and computer-generated effects, but it’s the former that lends the film a squirmy and appealingly nostalgic quality. There’s a jarring moment of calibration upon our first encounter with the polar bear, his charging gait too gangled, the motion all wrong, establishing a creepy vibe without yet tethering the moment to any discernible explanation. It’s a singular enough image to hold onto until the body-snatched officers arrive, the tentacled aliens wearing their distended, sagging bodies like dad’s old suit — the effect suggests what that scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 where a snake wears an old woman’s body should have looked like. But rather than any monolithic contemporary franchises, Slack/Back shares far more DNA with low-budget ‘80s sci-fi and body horror flicks, a texture that pairs nicely with the vein of earnestness that runs through the film, a quality which could have been cloying were it not for the film’s small-scale, homegrown feel. Few films in the increasingly regurgitative and soul-dead movie industry feel like true labors of love anymore, but on that front, Slash/Back is unimpeachable, its joy as palpable as its gooey effects.
But for all that, there’s simply too much filler; Slash/Back barely clocks 80 minutes, but spends too much of it accelerating through various interpersonal conflicts — boy problems, some public bullying, etc. — and empty commentaries that are suggested but never explored: class disparity, alcoholism, and technology addiction are all introduced and then immediately dropped. Which is certainly for the best in terms of keeping the attention on the film’s gnarly aesthetic, but the introduction of such elements does cast a light on how threadbare even the most playful parts here are. Even the film’s visual design, FX work notwithstanding, feels lacking: a culminating scene, two bodies silhouetted against an orchid- and navy-colored twilight sky, waves lightly breaking behind a cruising motorboat, suggests the potentially beautiful compositions the gorgeous locale might have afforded but which never materialize. Still, it’s nice to see an indigenous production that doesn’t feel compelled to explicitly foreground issues of indigeneity — a welcome byproduct of growing representation, specifically in Canadian cinema — and if the film’s notable slightness means its doesn’t register as a considerably substantial success, it’s still a diverting, charming girl power romp and pleasant digestif to the smorgasbord of bloated blockbuster IP that saturates our screens.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.