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8/27/07

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I'd heard good things about Arctic Son, and wanted to see it when it played the 2007 Ashland Independent Film Festival, but I never got a chance. Thanks to PBS and their wonderful documentary series P.O.V., I didn't have to wait till the film is barely released on DVD and then the long wait in my queue to see it.

"Before enlightenment, chop and carry wood. After enlightenment, chop and carry wood." - Wu Li

Stan Jr. the subject of Artic Son wouldn't have understood and probably would have laughed at this quote (which opens the film) before his life changing journey; which was captured by filmmaker Andrew Walton. Afterwards it would be something to live his life by, though he would never admit to it. Stan Jr. is like a lot of disillusioned young men in this country, he has no motivations beyond where to find his next drink or high. He's a decent artist, but it's not something he yearns to be, only something to pass the time or pick up girls with. Living with his mother in Seattle, he has no ambitions to change himself for the better. His father Stan Sr. is upset by his son's behavior, so he brings him to live with him in the extremely isolated town of Old Crow in the Canadian Yukon.

Coming from a big city, of course the small, mostly native community is a major culture shock for Jr. But this isn't a simple fish-out-of-water story; it goes deeper than that, not going for the easy confrontations. With nowhere to go for entertainment, no bars to get drunk in, nothing to do but live an off-the-land life; Jr. is soon rebelling against father. Sr. is patient with him; letting him detox from his aimless lifestyle. He teaches him how to fish and hunt in the same way their elders did. They take long snowmobile rides through the untouched landscape, often stopping to repair the run-down models. It is a life that demands patience.

Slowly Stan Jr. begins to change. He still enjoys the occasional drink of his homemade beer; still has harsh words with his father about things they disagree on; still scowls and yells "fuck!" anytime something upsets him. It's not easy to see, but there has been change within him; there is a love and respect for life that wasn't there before. He is a new man. His mother calls for him to come home to Seattle and he agrees to go. This proves to be the true test of his fortitude. Will his old demons come back to haunt him?

Arctic Son is a meditative documentary; a quiet and slow film that lets you wallow in every scene. It is not a film for people with short attention spans, but if you stick with it, you'll find it more rewarding than a lot of flashier documentaries. Stan Jr. and Sr. are both extremely private people, it's a surprise that they allowed the intrusion of a film crew into their life at all. At no time do they truly open up to the filmmakers; never giving any immediate insight into what they are feeling about the situation. Everything is told through their minimal dialogue and their change of attitude towards each other; the filmmakers let their story develop naturally.

The landscape is the third character in the film. There are long sequences of mild music and beautifully photographed vistas of the frozen tundra and the few animals that inhabit this harsh world. Much time is devoted to the way the men meticulouly set fish and rabbit traps in the traditional way. The film is a love song to this old world and way of life almost as much as it is the story of two men learning how to become father and son. Artic Son is a beautiful slice of life.


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