(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Jeff Harasimowicz
The players of the Metlakatla Chiefs have a lot of weight on the shoulders. The high school basketball team, largely comprised of young members of the Tsimshian tribe, is the pride of its community. Basketball is one of Metlakatla’s key pastimes. In remote parts of Alaska, events like basketball games bring a community together. Family members and neighbours are heavily invested in their success. Moreover, the Chiefs haven’t won a state championship since 1984, so the 2018 team really feels the pressure to bring home the cup.
The stakes, however, are much greater than sport. Director Jeff Harasimowicz observes the players’ lives off the court. For many of them, the local fishing industry presents the most practical future. Their dads worked the nets and so will they. Between shooting hoops and cutting classes, the students play hooky to work the boats and nets. Fishing, however, isn’t the industry it used to be. Boys could easily invest in boats and gear only to see the local supply collapse amid regulation. Focusing on their studies could prepare them for better futures, which may entail leaving town or putting basketball on pause. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone to carry, especially young people who see one death after another rocking the community.
Danny and DJ
Harasimowicz largely focuses on two players, cousins Danny Marsden and DJ King. They represent a snapshot of what the Chiefs face because they navigate both forms of Alaskan nets—fishing and basketball. DJ, however, explores deep sea diving to increase his prospects. It’s a risky endeavour and one that leaves his family vexed. People in the community live in constant anxiety about the too-frequent news of fatal diving accidents. Each time they occur—and Harasimowicz is there to observe when they do—everyone in Metlakatla from the students, to the parents, to the teachers from the south, feels the pain.
Alaskan Nets observes as the players blow off steam on the courts. Under the guidance of their coach, TJ, they land a mad winning streak en route to the championship. However, winning isn’t easy, especially for a small team from Metlakatla. Alaskan Nets veers away from the tragedies of its first half as the second act of the doc takes audiences through a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles style road trip as the Chiefs embark on their tournament. The film, which credits Alaska Airlines as one of its biggest champions, shows how travel unites communities across the northernmost state. Add long hours and exhaustion to their journey, and it’s a marvel the boys can win—or even muster the energy to take the court.
While there is a lot going on here and Alaskan Nets navigates tones, storylines, and characters somewhat chaotically, it has a lot of heart. This aspires to be to documentary what films like The Grizzlies or Friday Night Lights are to drama. The film is grounded in the strength of its characters. While the conventional talking heads style may leave something to be desired, Alaskan Nets gives ample face to all members of their community. The perspectives of the players, their parents, their teachers, their coach, and their elders have equal weight. By connecting these stories, the film illustrates why the Chiefs matter so much to Metlakatla and why the community invests so much energy in both the players’ success and their well-being.
The invigorating final act shifts into slickly shot sports movie mode somewhat at the expense of the weighty stories that precede it, but Alaskan Nets benefits from laying out the stakes in each game. For each player, a foul move or missed shot could mean a tailspin. Harasimowicz observes the hope and heartache of a community, and shows how the community holds strong in the face of adversity. It finds resilience and victory on and off the court.
Alaskan Nets is in digital release beginning April 8.