Reel Alternatives goes outdoors with classic Canadiana 

The Snow Walker is the archetypal Canadian film – austere, no-frills and set in the frozen north.

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What: Reel Alternatives — The Snow Walker

Where: Lost Lake Park

When: Saturday, July 10

Tickets: $8/adults, kids under 12 free

It’s based on Walk Well My Brother , a short story by Farley Mowat, an icon of Canadian literature if ever there was one, and directed by Charles Martin Smith, star of another well-known Mowat screen adaptation, 1983’s Never Cry Wolf .

It’s so stereotypically "Canadian" it’s hard not to let that prejudice the viewing experience at the start. Nobody likes to be typecast – Canadian film lovers especially – leading to the tendency to rage against, (or at least passively scoff at) the "frozen north" films of heritage commercials past.

It’s human nature to get defensive when stereotypes rear their familiar heads.

But the Snow Walker’s honesty melts such resolve.

The film’s appeal comes softly, in sync with the relationship between principal characters Charlie Halliday, a cocky WWII veteran flyboy working for a commercial flight company in the Northwest Territories, and Kanaalaq, an ailing, yet hardy, young Inuit woman.

The film is set circa late 1950s. When we first meet Halliday, played by Canadian-born Barry Pepper, in a Yellowknife bar, he is boisterous and brash, playing pool and playing the big man, bedding the waitress and brushing off his morning-after over-sleeping confidently.

His behaviour draws stern but affectionate chiding from the fatherly flight company boss "Shep" Shepherd, played by renowned character actor James Cromwell, admiration from the young Turks and dagger eyes from a burned out veteran who has let the northern life harden him too much.

Shep sends Halliday out on a job during which he flies off pattern, brushing off the inherent risks true to his devil-may-care style.

Midway he encounters a group of Inuit who bribe him to transport Kanaalaq, played by a cherubic Annabella Piugattuk, to Yellowknife to receive hospital treatment for a persistent cough that suggests tuberculosis.

En route Halliday and Kanaalaq become stranded in the endless expanse of the Canadian Arctic in summer, untraceable due to Halliday’s rogue flight path.

It’s here that the film truly begins. Halliday’s headstrong, shoot-em-up approach to solving problems is forcibly softened by Kanaalaq’s unassuming intuition, which proves time and time again to be the only way to survive.

And while Kanaalaq is the one savvy of northern ways, she in turn must rely on Halliday due to her deteriorating health.

It’s a movie formula that has been tried and tested time and time again, but The Snow Walker makes it feel fresh and true again.

Piugattuk is beautiful, but more importantly she is completely authentic. Though the actress is reportedly now living in Vancouver, casting agents for the film found her in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Kanaalaq’s skills are Piugattuk’s skills. Hunting, fishing, treatment of caribou hide, shelter construction, there is no body double for her scenes and the film benefits because of her remarkable, understated, almost documentary-like performance.

And Pepper, likely drawing on his experience in intense films such as Saving Private Ryan, throws himself into his physically and emotionally challenging role with requisite vigour. His transformation is believable and his appreciation and affection for his coughing guardian angel/spirit guide are totally sincere.

The bleak Canadian Arctic-scapes are undeniably breathtaking but it’s the humanity that is the heart of the Snow Walker.

It’s all more than enough to rehabilitate those who might consciously or subconsciously resist the stereotypical Canadian film aesthetic. And for those who go into the viewing experience un-jaded, prepare to be swept away by a tale of humanity, determination, friendship and awakening, told purely in the clean, signature style of the true north strong and free.

The Snow Walker (rated PG) screens this Saturday evening (July 10) as part of the Whistler Film Festival Society’s ongoing Reel Alternatives series, an initiative to bring film festival-style cinematic fare to Whistler. The series is moving outdoors to Lost Lake Park for July and August and should not be confused with Whistler Community Service’s Lunaflicks outdoor summer film series.

Saturday’s Reel Alternatives screening has also been co-ordinated with Tourism Whistler’s first annual Whistler Arts and Music Festival.

The family event kicks off at 8 p.m. with food vendors and the folksy music of the Rutherford Creek Trio, with the film starting after dark at approximately 10 p.m. There is no organized seating so viewers should bring lawn chairs or blankets and wear appropriate clothing.

Tickets for the event are $8, with kids 12 years old and under free. Tickets are available in advance from the Whistler Information and Activity Centre and Nesters Market. A shuttle will be available from the Gondola Transit Exchange in Whistler Village to and from the venue beginning at 8 p.m. for 50 cents each way. There will be no parking available at Lost Lake Park for the event.

For more information go to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.

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