Slash/Back Review: Attack The Block Meets Reservation Dogs [SXSW]

In the simplest terms, Nyla Innuksuk's "Slash/Back" is "Attack the Block" meets "Reservation Dogs." Innuksuk honors Inuit roots by opting away from another "Stranger Things"-style coming-of-age horror hybrid that takes place on suburban streets. "Slash/Back" transports viewers to the Canadian territory of Nunavut, precisely the hamlet of Pang, highlighted by glacier-created fjords and Baffin Island mountains for incredible natural production values. Innuksuk and co-writer Ryan Cavan write about teenagers processing their Indigenous surroundings as much as global adolescent problems like curfews and crushes, for a uniquely Inuit creature feature that's got enough of what monster fans might crave.

The film follows barely-teens Maika (Tasiana Shirley), Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), and Leena (Chelsea Prusky) living their repetitive Pang lives. Maika sneaks everyone onto her father's boat for another day of shooting cans and scrolling Instagram in isolated peace, only for everyone to suddenly be attacked by what presents as a bear. The crew scampers back home unharmed before all the Pang parents assemble for another alcohol-fueled dance event. Maika thinks she'll spend the night with popular Pang children at an unsupervised house party until Uki bursts in with unbelievable news — whatever attacked them earlier isn't alone, and they're not animals. They're aliens, tentacles and all.

Innuksuk takes a risk by casting actors in the 11-14 age range, none of whom have prior acting silver screen credentials. "Slash/Back" could have been a disaster with such a gamble — it's not. The girl-gang quartet and Frankie Vincent-Wolfe as Maika's adorable pipsqueak sister Aju feel appropriately authentic in their curiosity, immaturity, and expressions of fearlessness. An awkward undertone permeates scenes as Maika navigates friendships and conversations with boys amidst an extraterrestrial attack, empowering the script's sincerity. Maybe that attributes to some lower-energy moments not on par with those superior energies of "Attack the Block" — "Slash/Back" is a debut for multiple roles on-and-off camera after all — but the girls of Pang eventually prove why they're nobody to "f***" with (their words, hell yeah).

Cronenbergian body-horror bloodshed

What's so charming about "Slash/Back" is that Innuksuk's production feels like nothing else on the market. Musicians Halluci Nation and Tanya Tagaq lend their house-influenced Indigenous beats and guttural throat singing to an electric-bright soundtrack that breathes such fresh Nunavut air. Creature elements draw from Qalupalik myths that bleed into callbacks to John Carpenter's "The Thing" amongst other skinwalker flicks. Innuksuk is committed to bringing attention to Pang, Inuit traditions, and reservation conditions. The heirloom weapons, hunter's passage rites, and the warpaint Maika's warriors eventually wear — it's easy to get lost in Pang, not just "Slash/Back."

Innuksuk earns points because alien designs aren't holstered until final acts. Uki puts a bullet in their first white-coated "bear" attacker relatively early and establishes the freakish movement of tentacular entities attempting their best mammal impressions under stolen flesh. Eventually, the creatures set sights on civilian targets and begin shambling around like nasty versions of Karl Havok's bodysuit from "I Think You Should Leave Now", clearly not human but disturbingly still wearing ill-fitting faces like a rushed Leatherface commission. Visual effects are heavily animated but join the ranks of "Grabbers," or equally impressive examples of digital execution in horror cinema — and those blood squirts are so good when Innuksuk sheds (and beheads) some practical gore.

Truthfully, there's a shorter iteration of "Slash/Back" that I'd adore — but I still like what premiered at SXSW. You can't help but want to champion the film's trademark sweetness, shining a light on badass little girls who take on their entire community's enemies. Nyla Innuksuk's Inuit storytelling becomes effortlessly universal, interwoven with Inuktitut fonts that fade into English never to sacrifice Innuksuk's inclusive intentions. It's a celebration and confrontation of Innuksuk's Inuit experience through an enticing sci-fi-horror lens with dangerous bodysnatchers forcing wee children to grow up too damn quick. "Can we just go back to hunting a blood-sucking alien?" Life's full of monsters, and "Slash/Back" manifests them all for its half-sized heroes to eradicate because Pang girls don't back down — we love a wholesome message with our Cronenbergian body-horror bloodshed.

/Film Review: 7 out of 10