Dir. Nyla Innuksuk
October 12, 2022
Coming-of-age stories, films, and TV shows are Hollywood's bread and butter. Whether it is a bunch of kids on a morbid adventure to see a dead body in STAND BY ME, or a group of teens inspired to read poetry in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, the coming-of-age genre is a never-ending pool of possibilities. The growing success of the 80s nostalgic-heavy STRANGER THINGS sci-fi/teens/adventure has ignited a whole new movement in the genre that doesn't seem to be dissipating. But what we are not seeing within this movement are films that focus on heroines, not heroes; women, young women, and girls who fight the big fight and save the planet.
Though there are many movies that give women and girls the spotlight (think THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, LADY BIRD, LITTLE WOMEN, etc.), in this genre they are usually white, usually American, and this usually creates some form of distance for the audiences. Coming-of-age movies have not grown in the same way that other movies genres have in being more representative of the wider communities, or using this new found desire from audiences to explore narratives that platform other minorities. Which is why Nyla Innuksuk’s SLASH/BACK is such a groundbreaking debut feature. Director Innuksuk and her co-writer Ryan Cavan have created a movie that not only builds its own platform to showcase four indigenous actresses, but proves that these are voices and faces we need to hear and see more of.
Maika, Tasiana Shirley, and her friends Uki, Nalajoss Ellsworth, Leena, Chelsea Prusky, and Jesse, Alexis Wolfe, live in Pang, a small town near the Arctic Circle in Canada. Life is pretty slow, simple, and perhaps too predictable for the teenage Maika, who is growing to dislike the isolation her hometown offers with its less than 1800 residents. Within the group, only Uki seems happy and proud of where she’s from and the traditions her small hamlet offers. After taking an unsupervised boat trip to an island, where the friends encounter a strange bear-like animal, it’s at a party that they discover aliens are trying to take over their community.
Teenagers in such remote places face the daunting task of not being able to break away from the confines of the communities they are in, and Innuksuk and Cavan have included some powerful truths about the experience these isolated communities face. Money, and the struggle that some of the girls face, is a running theme throughout the film. Within their friendship circle only Leena's parents seem to have money. In one scene, Leena, who is constantly scrolling through Instagram, is asked by one of the other girls "how much data" she has, to which she replies "my parents pay". In another scene, one of the girls talks about how she wanted to go to Winnipeg, to which Tanya points out that Leena "goes every year." And when Thomassie, Rory Anawak, asks Maika what food she likes, she says KFC, to which he replies, "expensive." The resigned nature of their responses was fascinating; as beautiful and majestic as their home is, one can imagine how 'prison-like' it could feel for a teenager.
Yet there is no pity here, and to a greater extent, there is also no jealousy between the friends. The only friction within the group comes between Uki and Maika, with their fight scene at Thomassie’s party being a pivotal moment between the two friends. In fairness, the way Maika unloads on Uki is harsh and you cannot help but feel that this was also a little bit cruel. Maika knows that this is her place, her birthright. She’s proud of where she is from but also frustrated, angry, and deflected. Uki takes the brunt of it yet, and this is also down to Ellsworth’s truly natural gift as an actor; he never takes it personally and seems to have the type of strength and maturity to not be phased by such harsh comments from her friend.
The young cast were a revelation, and their lack of an acting background gave the script the final piece of realism that was needed for this film to really work. Filmmakers don’t usually use unknown or untrained actors, and fewer would choose to do so with their debut feature, but professional child actors in a film like this would have broken it and taken away from the social and political undertones that thread throughout the film. The strength of any film lies in its story, its actors, and the skill of the director. This skill also requires the director to be able to maintain the vision they want whilst also not overburdening their film with ideas or plot that are unnecessary. It can be especially hard when a director is helming their debut feature film because all those ideas try, in some ways, to make it into the final film. The director has to be willing to make some tough decisions in order to truly serve their film well.
With SLASH/BACK Nyla Innuksuk has crafted a film that is unique in the canon of coming-of-age films that platforms not only her voice as an indigenous Canadian filmmaker but that of her cast and the Pangnirtung community. Through holding acting workshops, Innuksuk was able to assemble her young cast, and though this could have been a huge risk, I think it offers even greater realism to the film and serves it well. For indigenous audiences, this is perhaps the first time that they will see themselves represented on the big screen, as well as seeing and hearing the concerns of a young indigenous community and understanding that this is a shared experience.
Because of the remoteness of the town, one of the surprising aspects of the film is that it takes place in daylight. This is something that doesn’t dawn on you at first and offers the film an extra layer of depth that is also very effective in keeping the tension, the scares, and the horror that’s unfolding.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that Officer Peters, Paulette Metuq, was hard done by and her "outcome" was unfair, much like Barb's. we never seem to find out what happened to her. #WhereIsPeters might not have been trending on Twitter, but on the train home, I was certainly wondering what happened to her.
"This is most beautifully captured through the relationship between Maika and her father, who has been instilling in her all their history and traditions throughout most of her life."
SLASH/BACK can, in a lot of ways, be seen as a metaphor for the centuries of invasions and political struggles that communities like Pangnirtung have had to endure. There are touches of this throughout the film; Maika wears a leather jacket with "No Justice on Stolen Land" written on the back, and as the end title comes up, it flashes from SLASH/BACK to LAND BACK. Subtle though this is, its inclusion is vital and serves the overall story incredibly well, as it allows the audience to understand just why these young women would fight so hard for their community. For Maika and her friends, they are dealing with the apathy of their parents' generation, parents who have had to give up this fight. This is most beautifully captured through the relationship between Maika and her father, who has been instilling in her all their history and traditions throughout most of her life. He’s a local legend for being a great hunter, and though Maika initially seems to be fighting against this and against him, one can see it more of a conflict that most teenage girls go through, this inbuilt rebellious streak against their parents.
But it will be Maika, Jesse, Leena, and Uki who are to inherit this fight for their land, and like every teenager around the world, the fight is also one of finding one's own place in the world and being happy with it. The scene towards the end with Maika and her father in his fishing boat is a touching moment as we get to see Maika come full circle, not only content but also happy reconnecting with a place she no longer needs to fight against.
Whether it is science fiction or a heartfelt drama, representation is important both in front and behind the camera. Seeing a film that features such warm, comical, and strong performances from Shirley, Ellsworth, Prusky, and Wolfe was electrifyingly fresh and original. Moreover, SLASH/BACK has substance, and though it might have to face comparisons with other genre-defining films, it is perhaps unfair to try and peg this film to those that came before it. Innuksuk took a chance on non-actors who would carry her film, and the director also used her platform to make a strong political point. This risk paid off allow Innuksuk to create a film that is inspired and will lay the foundations for other films, and filmmakers, to come.