The Grizzlies is based on the true origin story of a high school lacrosse team in Kugluktuk, Nunavut—but don’t think it’s a sports film. It delves into the teen suicide epidemic affecting Inuit communities, as well as issues like domestic violence, drug use, and alcohol abuse.
The film opens with the arrival of a white teacher named Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) who knows absolutely nothing about Inuit culture or the place he’s been sent to. He doesn’t even know that groceries are ridiculously expensive in Nunavut, which a Google search about living in the territory will quickly reveal. (In other words, this guy did nothing to prepare for this move—like, literally nothing.) Sheppard is shocked by the conditions he encounters—not just the groceries, but the fact that the teens he’s supposed to teach rarely attend class for any length of time, don’t hand in assignments when they’re due, and seem to spend most of their time smoking weed and drinking. But it’s not until after Sheppard is made brutally aware of the suicide epidemic that he decides to start a lacrosse team that he hopes will give the kids something to work towards.
Sheppard is in dire peril of fitting the white saviour trope, but there are some things de Pencier seems to do to try to negate this. While Sheppard is the main character of the film and it’s his arrival that instigates the plot, it’s a young student, Miranda (Emerald MacDonald), who is arguably the hero of the film. If not for her advice and hard work, Sheppard’s lacrosse idea might have been dead on arrival.
Four other students are featured as prominent characters: Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan), whose grandparents have already lost one son to the white man’s schools and so have taken him out of school to learn from them instead; Zach (Paul Nutarariaq), whose parents are consistently shown passed out and surrounded by empty bottles; Kyle (Booboo Stewart), whose father is abusive towards him and his mother; and Spring (Anna Lambe), the first girl to ever play for the Grizzlies.
De Pencier emphasizes that it’s really Sheppard who is learning from his students, rather than he who is teaching them. There’s also a scene at a town council meeting where the point is driven home that Sheppard’s lacrosse team, while beneficial to some students, hardly addresses all of the challenges faced by the people of Kugluktuk.
The Grizzlies falls just short of being a real ensemble film, which would have allowed de Pencier to more effectively skirt the white saviour trope. Sheppard’s arrival could still have been the inciting incident, but without making him the center focus of the film.
And the kids de Pencier cast could have certainly pulled it off. MacDonald’s performance is fantastic; she sells her character’s development in a way that feels entirely natural. Marty-Pahtaykan, Nutarariaq and Stewart all deliver great performances as well, but Nutarariaq is the real standout. His character, Zack, has a lot of responsibility weighing on his young shoulders, and Nutarariaq captures his vulnerability, anger, and despair, and all the moments where they bleed together. Lambe was great, but could have had more screen time.
While the film ultimately ends on a hopeful note, it is gut-wrenching, and anyone triggered by scenes of domestic violence or suicide may want to either wait for a home theatre version or skip it entirely. But it is an amazing film, and worth your time.
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