It's easy to understand what would draw Chris Pratt to executive produce the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Audience Award-winning feature doc Alaskan Nets, a film that plays all the right notes in telling a meaningful story, tapping into the heartstrings, and absolutely amplifying the human spirit.
The film, picked up by indie distributor Good Deed Entertainment, grabbed me in its opening moments and never let go throughout its just shy of two-hour running time. Alaskan Nets sets itself in Alaska's last Native reserve where two cousins are leading the basketball team for their 70-person high school toward its first state championship in over 30 years. While it may sound like Alaskan Nets is simply another "rah-rah" film, rest assured this is a film that goes beyond the surface and tackles the story underneath the story in an isolated community practically on the brink of extinction that serves almost solely because of those other nets, fishing nets, and because of the passion they've long held for their small yet proud basketball team.
The majority of the team's players are members of the Tsimshian tribe and basketball has been a meaningful part of life ever since that first unexpected basketball championship. Despite having come close multiple times, the players for the Metlakatla Chiefs have never been able to snack that repeat championship win.
Director Jeff Harasimowicz captures the fragile nature of life in this area where most of these boys have grown up in homes where fishing has been everything and it's likely the future that they face. This is a community where school often comes in second place, kids absolutely willing to be out at 5am on their family's fishing boats only to make it late to school or not make it at all. As fishing prospects change in the area, partly due to climate change and partly due to regulations, these young men face uncertain futures whether fishing or devoting themselves to their studies. Harasimowicz largely focuses the lens on two players in particular - Danny Marsden and DJ King. Both are consumed by both fishing and basketball, though DJ as of late has taken interest in the far riskier practice of deep sea diving for sea cucumbers and other items valued in Asian markets. It's a practice that is dangerous. Yet, the rewards are high and in an area with few other ways to thrive the attraction is undeniable.
Alaskan Nets manages to balance portraying the communal spirit of a town that feels like it may be on its last gasp, though it also captures the hopefulness brought about by the Chiefs' latest round of basketball success and the tribal pride that radiates throughout the community in a myriad of ways. The film is undeniably beautiful to behold, though the occasional "talking head" interview feels wildly out of place in a film so immersed in the wonder that is rural Alaska.
At just shy of two hours, Alaskan Nets feels just a tad long but it's hard to complain about a film that so honestly and completely gives itself to the community in which it sets itself. I'd be hard-pressed to name any scene of the film that I'd be willing to set to the side.
Alaskan Nets is just as beautiful whether we're watching the awe-inspiring Alaskan landscape or some mighty fine high school basketball. These young men have such a vibrant spirit as they travel by plane to even their closest games and at times even sleep on gymnasium floors all in the name of high school glory and living whatever a meaningful life means to them.
While not quite a flawless film, Alaskan Nets is a film that celebrates the human spirit and celebrates the simple wonder of the Tsinshian tribe and the players for the Metlakatla Chiefs. Comparisons to Hoop Dreams are probably inevitable here, though Alaskan Nets is a beauty all its own.
With ample amounts of compassion and cultural integrity, Alaskan Nets is an engaging, rewarding film about life in a rather unique community and the people who make that community special through the universal languages of basketball, fishing, and a persevering hope.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic