Chukwuma is living through that difficult in-between time in young adulthood that many refer to as finding yourself. He is caught in the schism between going to college and going to work, being a proud Nigerian and blending in as an American, and figuring out what he wants to do with his life in the long run. To complicate things, he’s in Fairbanks, Alaska – one of the coldest and most isolated places in the country.
It’s in Fairbanks that Chukwuma - or “Chuck” as his friends call him - reunites with his younger sister Chidinma after a tragic accident separates them for two years. Through the course of getting to know his sister, Chuck is forced to confront their loss and the roots he left behind.
Chinonye Chukwu’s debut feature alaskaLand is a solid coming-of-age drama, and endearing at times, as some of its most charming scenes involve the interplay between a brother and sister rekindling their connection. In its best moments, the characters feel like people we know – the little sister we want to protect, the uncle we admire, or the close friend that can’t seem to get his act together. On the other hand, the film runs the risk of being a little too ordinary and not dramatic, or cinematic, enough.
The ‘wayward young man trying to escape a troubled past’ is something we’ve seen in movies countless times, so any film that tells this story begs for a unique twist. Here it seems that Chuck’s Nigerian-American heritage, set against the backdrop of Alaska, will offer that. Visually, I was prepared for all manner of magical shots of the Alaskan landscape to draw us into his sense of loneliness and isolation. Instead we see relatively little of his surroundings - it’s as if the camera takes for granted that we, the audience, are likely not from Fairbanks and are itching to experience this world. It's a choice that apparently was intentional, (Chukwu has mentioned wanting to create an insular, claustrophobic feel), but seems counter-intuitive.
As with many first-time indie features, there are some clichéd moments and places where the story loses steam. I’ve read that the script was written in about four months and shot in two weeks, during which there were several last-minute revisions. Without giving too much of the plot away, I’ll say I’m curious to know what was scrapped and how that might have changed the movie. But ultimately, Chukwu’s story-telling ability shines through. As in her well-done short The Dance Lesson (lead actress Chioma Dunkley co-stars here), it's clear that there's a strong sense of identity threaded through this film. As a Nigerian-American who was raised in Alaska herself, she had plenty of personal experience to draw from and offers lots of subtle but genuine insights about culture, family, and finding one’s place in the world.
In one scene where Chidinma tells Chuck that crayfish is the secret to making proper jollof rice, he asks without thinking, “Where am I supposed to get crayfish?”
“From Nigeria,” she answers.
“How am I supposed to get crayfish from Nigeria?”
“You go to Nigeria.”
In the end, alaskaLand is rough around the edges but worth checking out, and sets high sights for what writer-director Chinonye Chukwu will tackle next.
The film next screens at New Voices in Black Cinema Festival in New York on Feb. 17, and again at Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles on Feb. 18. If you’ve seen it, or plan to, feel free to chime in with your thoughts below.