Alpha is not a complicated film. It’s a simple story with straightforward characters, but this simplicity allows its characters to grow and the audience to become immersed in their world.
On the surface, Alpha is all about a hunt. The film takes place somewhere in prehistoric Europe amongst a tribe of hunters. Chief of his tribe Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) could not be prouder of his son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The men of the tribe are about to head out to their annual bison hunt, which will supply them with food and fur for the winter, and Keda is joining them for the first time. Tau is fair but firm, and Keda is timid but eager to please. As they begin their long journey to the hunting grounds, Keda learns lessons along the way about survival and being a leader. Tau is clearly grooming him to be the next chief, though it’s not clear if Keda will be up to the task.
Through a freak accident, Keda is badly injured in the chaos of the bison hunt and presumed dead. Heartbroken, Tau has no choice but to lead the hunters back home. Though Keda is physically weakened, he’s still alive and is far more persevering than he gives himself credit for. Keda wants to return home more than anything and is determined to see his parents once again.
Enter Alpha. The wolf is part of a pack that was hunting Keda for food, and she’s badly injured in their fight. Keda and Alpha bond together in a cave as they’re both on the mend, and together they try everything they can to get back to Keda’s home.
Expectedly, Keda does a lot of growing up along his journey. Tau was constantly trying to teach him the value of patience and dominance, and these lessons finally gel as Keda stumbles his way across the vast wasteland. Alpha never calls too much attention to these lessons or frames them with magical realism and soaring music. Keda’s evolution is gradual and organic. Skills are called upon and learned over time.
His friendship with Alpha develops slowly as well. Within the world of the film, animals are either food or enemy. It’s eat-or-get-eaten in this land, and the notion of befriending a wolf is absurd. But Alpha and Keda need each other, and that relationship grows from utility to affection as the film progresses.
Visually, Alpha might be the most beautiful film you’ll see on screen all year, and that’s not just conjecture. The epic landscapes and endless night skies are nearly characters in themselves as they envelop Alpha and Keda through every step of their journey. The expanses feel lonely at times, but also highlight the wonder of nature, even when it’s trying to kill you.
Alpha asks a lot of its audience. The simple plot asks you to believe that this is the first time a human and a dog forged a friendship. It also asks you to believe that this sheltered teenage boy could survive such an ordeal even though he’d never been away from home before. However, Alpha also rewards its audience for the trust. Just like Alpha and Keda, the relationship between the movie and its audience is marvelous and symbiotic. The film immerses viewers into this uncomplicated existence, to witness the pleasures of watching a boy and his dog.