Movie Review: ‘Alaska’ warms the heart

‘Alaska is a Drag,’ one of the highlights of the Philadelphia Film Festival, features newcomer director Shaz Bennett with newcomer star Martin L. Washington Jr.

Film festival star: Martin L. Washington Jr. stars as a part-time fish canner, boxer and drag queen in Alaska is a Drag, which screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival on Saturday. PHOTO: IMDB

The Northern Lights shine over Alaska, but Leo and Tristen dream of pursuing the city lights of Los Angeles. The on-screen twins shine the brightest of all in Alaska is a Drag, Shaz Bennett’s feature length directorial debut.

Martin L. Washington Jr. is also a newcomer in the movie, but his tour de force performance as Leo, a part-time fish canner, part-time drag queen, and part-time boxer wouldn’t have you believe it.

The movie premiered Saturday at the Philadelphia Film Festival with the newcomer duo in attendance. In the movie, Leo and Tristen (the latter played by Maya Washington) work grueling jobs in a small town at the edge of the world, Alaska to pay for Tristen’s chemotherapy.

Even though the two leads share a last name and make a perfect match (they “vogue” down muddy back streets Madonna-style with perfect synchronicity), the two aren’t related in real life. Both are vloggers on YouTube. Martin contacted Bennett directly as she was casting for the film, saying the role of Leo was his life story. After he landed the role, he suggested Maya play beside him despite never meeting her in anything other than a video player.

It was a good call. Leo and Maya sear the screen with uncommonly rounded and realistic portrayals from their actors. The film balances its fluffier and heavier moments with practiced ease, and the characters compel you to watch every scene with a laugh or a knot in your stomach as they get into more serious situations.

There are plenty of heavy moments in the story. The twins are essentially on their own — their mother left them when they were young, their father (Kevin Daniels) is around but doesn’t help them, and Kyle (Christopher O’Shea), who skins fish with Leo, physically torments him after a past encounter the two shared.

Despite his hard luck in life, Leo remains resilient. He trains to be a boxer to defend himself against Kyle while he practices a routine in drag to perform at the only gay bar in town. Leo believes that, if he wins the drag show, he will gain enough notoriety to move out of Alaska to the city of angels and find his mom. Through and through, Leo (and Martin) is an underdog hero who resembles a modern-day Rocky Balboa. (Bennett herself said Rocky is one of her favorite films.)

Martin naturally shapes to the role like cream filling a cupcake, balancing his character’s eclectic hobbies with conviction. Bennett said much of Leo’s story matches Martin’s own — he had unsupportive parents growing up in Philly and dealt with the same bullying. (His parents are supportive now.)

Bennett and Martin together are sweet serendipity. Bennett wrote the film’s script, which was largely inspired by events in her own life — she spent a summer canning fish in Alaska, and always dreamed of escaping to L.A. as well.

The film revels in starry-eyed dreams just as much as it somehow makes its bitter chill comfortable. The story and acting is so immersive, you can almost feel the Alaska chill curling out of the screen. The film itself is a toasty blanket or a crackling fire that keeps you warm.••