Lots of Canadian films fly under the radar in small, token Toronto releases that breeze in and out of theatres with one week runs of a couple shows a day, but Bill Taylor’s feature debut Don’t Get Killed in Alaska deserves a closer examination and more fanfare than it has been getting. A quietly subdued family drama divided up into three distinct but different acts on the same subject, Taylor’s sharp writing, disarmingly gorgeous direction, and a wealth of exemplary performances make this one of the best Canadian microbudget productions of the year. Considering the kinds of Canadian microbudget productions that usually glut local theatres, Don’t Get Killed in Alaska is a cause for some celebration.
Twenty year old Liney (Tommie-Amber Pirie) has returned to Central Ontario after spending a summer in New Brunswick working as a logger with her boyfriend Dan (Ben Lewis). Her return is brief and single minded. The goal: to raise enough money to get her and Dan to Alaska – after losing all their savings in a shady “business” deal Dan screwed up on – so they can get jobs on a fishing trawler. Dan drops her off, and Liney has three stops to make as she attempts to borrow cash from her estranged mother (Rosemary Dunsmore), her flippant, angry older brother (Gianpaolo Venuta), and her depressed farmer father (Oliver Dennis).
Making the most of a low budget, Taylor crafts Liney’s uneasy relationships with the utmost care and nuance. None of her interactions are the same, and while the audience knows that Liney is a confused young woman trying to figure out her own life, it’s also know that she’s not a very trustworthy person; someone whose sense of right and wrong has clearly been coloured by her less than perfect upbringing and by a romantic relationship that might not last through the week. The shooting style is somewhat static, but sleek, and it doesn’t need any sort of embellishment. To be any showier would be to distract from the wealth of character and the depth of the performances the actors have crafted.
Of the three stops on Liney’s journey, the first sets the tone for everything to come and manages to be the most gripping and bittersweet. Having not seen her mother in years thanks to a falling out with the rest of the family, Pirie and Dunsmore have a lot to play with in the creation of their tenuous relationship. The mood is tense, tearful from the start, and leads to a final act of betrayal that’s as unforgivable as it is possibly karmic given their past. This section could be a film on its own and still be satisfying, but without the final two thirds it doesn’t hold up as well.
The relationship between Liney and her mom gets expanded upon when the action moves to her brother’s tiny, dreary Toronto condo. Venuta has to play both a caring brother trying to keep his younger sibling’s best interests in mind with the attitude of a self-taught know-it-all. He’s scared, wounded, going through a break-up, and almost constantly pissed at the most minor of annoyances. And yet, Taylor makes it known how they can be physically fighting one moment and lovingly honest moments later. If Liney by this point isn’t trustworthy, then her brother reinforces why she has turned out that way.
Finally, when Liney makes her way to her dad’s farm and the audience’s suspicions about Dan are finally more or less confirmed, the film loses a bit of momentum, but earns a surprisingly cathartic conclusion considering that the climax hinges on a decision that’s potentially the worst possible idea and outcome. After the first couple of acts there’s not a lot left to showcase in the relationship between Dennis and Pirie, but there doesn’t need to be. By this point the audience already knows that her dad was the most stable family member and the one who was always around, which makes the absences in his life that much sadder. He’s the only one who actually needs Liney around to emotionally survive, but he’s resigned to the fact that she’ll have to leave him behind at some point. It’s the most standard of the three stories, but Taylor has done an excellent job of building towards it and making the final act have the highest emotional and narrative stakes.
Don’t Get Killed in Alaska is the most deceptively complex Canadian film of the year, delivering a lot of emotional, spiritual (with talk of Buddhism and Christianity), and even political subtext (via mentions of the Occupy movement that serves as the timeline in the background) through well rounded characterizations that aren’t spoon fed to the audience through forceful melodrama. It’s simple on the surface, but comes with a lot of themes that require careful unpacking. It’s feels real enough to make a viewer squirm. As a family drama, it’s immeasurably nuanced. It’s a special film that’s more than worth seeking out in a weekend that’s already stacked with great releases.