If Skating to New York had any faith in the allure of its own premise — five high schoolers skate from their small Canadian town to New York across Lake Ontario on the coldest day of the year — it might have had something. The all-too-brief sequences in which the boys are allowed to simply skate are exuberant and full of life. They offer fleeting glimpses of the movie Skating to New York could have been — specifically, Breaking Away on ice. But where Breaking Away provided a deep understanding of its characters and their milieu, as well as the class and familial conflicts that undergirded their lives, Skating to New York loads itself up with so many melodramatic subplots and contrived scenarios, it scarcely has time to work through them all, much less develop its characters or their social environment.
These subplots include: an abusive father, a distant father, parents separating, a kid with a heart defect (which, like breast cancer in The Room, is brought up in one scene and then never mentioned again), a budding teenage romance, and a slumping hockey team. The film treats them all like mere data points. I suppose these stabs at melodrama are intended to suggest a motive for the boys’ trek across the ice — escaping the messiness of their families for the uncomplicated objective of reaching New York — but Charles Minsky (a long-time cinematographer making his directorial debut) does nothing to give the melodrama any weight or impact. Everything is just kind of tossed out there, as if this generic melodramatic material were necessary to give the movie “stakes.”
The five boys — four members of a midget hockey team and one of the boy’s younger brother — share a bro-y, insult-heavy repartee. They decide to skate across the lake, which has completely frozen over for the first time in decades, largely on a whim. The challenge offers the promise of local fame, but, in one of the oddest quirks of the movie, after the boys successfully make it across the lake, the film largely forgets about it. The boys make no attempt to become make their exploits known, and they simply resume their rather uninspiring hockey careers. This might have worked as a bittersweet coda to their triumphant skating feat, but it’s played instead as if their winning one hockey game is somehow the climax of the film.
Skating to New York does at least provide a little small-town Canadian flavor — minor ice hockey, thick Canuck accents, ice fishing, and five-pin bowling all make appearances — but the movie really comes alive only in those moments when we see the boys skating across the miles of frozen lake. In wide shot they appear as minuscule specks on an endless expanse of white. In close up, they appear ebullient, too young to care how incautious they are. Unfortunately, these moments comprise maybe five minutes in an otherwise confused muddle of undeveloped characters and half-hearted melodrama.