Bill Taylor’s feature film debut Don’t Get Killed In Alaska is an intriguing melodrama that depicts a young woman’s attempt to carve out her own path in life and make amends with her fragmented family members. Liney (Tommie-Amber Pirie), a 20-year-old tomboy, is provoked by her drug-dealer boyfriend Dan (Ben Lewis) to obtain money from her estranged parents and brother, so they can work on a fishing boat in Alaska for the winter. In attempting to salvage the remains of her nearest and dearest connections, Liney is thrown into a personal crisis over the thought of renouncing the past in the hopes of finding a better life for herself.
Taylor, a Toronto-based filmmaker, frames the narrative around Liney, as she drifts between her unstable, alcoholic mother (Rosemary Dunsmore), a successful yet uptight brother (Gianpaolo Venuta), and a lonely, repressed father (Oliver Dennis). As stories are told and the past is reminisced upon, the film creates an indeterminate background for each person. Coupled by a firm sense of pacing in each sequence, Liney’s intimate moments of reunification with her family are at once heartfelt and tense, each closing in unpredictable fashion. Anchored by Pirie’s strong leading performance, the ensemble does admirable work in conveying a concrete rendering of dysfunction at bay.
The setting in each part of Liney’s journey is pivotal. Transitioning from the GTA suburbs to downtown Toronto, and concluding in the Northern outskirts of Napanee, Ontario, the carefully constructed milieu supplies insight into each supporting character, while also representing their distinct qualities. Toronto’s rigid urbanity contrasts heavily with the desolation of rural farm life, just as Liney’s brother Rob and father Lorne oppose one another from their respective moralistic viewpoints. Cinematographer Ben Lichty accentuates each location with a sincere naturalism.
The plot invites comparisons to other important works of Canadian film history, most notably Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down The Road (1970), and Don Owens’ Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964). Both films hinge on the struggle of fledgling individuals attempting to live life on their own terms and making questionable choices along the way. Yet Taylor’s film provides a very different meditation on youth and family affairs. Liney’s eagerness to escape to Alaska is placed in tandem with the rise of social activism, as a means for young adults to get involved in causes and ways to define themselves as individuals. It’s difficult not to empathize with Liney’s desire for agency, for either those in their defining decade as well, or those who have moved beyond that period in time. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see this kind of sub-narrative re-emerge, especially at a point when Toronto’s latest crop of filmmakers have gained momentum in recent years.
With a taut storyline, strong performances, and radiant cinematography, Don’t Get Killed In Alaska is a film that shows the mark of a bourgeoning filmmaker effectively connecting with the national landscape and its cinematic history.