'The Grizzlies': A Film that Roars

The Grizzlies
(Canada, 104 min.)
Dir. Miranda de Pencier; Writ. Moria Walley-Beckett, Graham Yosy
Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Paul Nutarariaq, Emerald MacDonald, Anna Lambe, Fred Bailey, Tantoo Cardinal, Booboo Stewart, Will Sasso
Inuit lacrosse team
Photo by Shane Mahood
Mongrel Media

The fearless and inspiring The Grizzlies gives Canadian film the great sports drama that has long eluded it. As The Grizzlies gives its excellent young cast a chance to shine, roar, and spotlight their community, the film provides a significant call to action for the suicide crisis up North and an effective portrait of the complexity of north/south and Indigenous/settler relationships. The film begins with a heartbreaking image of an Inuit youth walking on the tundra, alone save for his faithful dog, as he takes his life. The image returns more than once in The Grizzlies as the film introduces audiences to a community in which literally everyone has lost a friend or family member to suicide.

There is no easy solution to such a crisis. Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) learns that change doesn’t come quickly and can’t be enforced. A keen and well-intended southerner, or qallunaat as the locals call him, Russ arrives in Kugluktuk, Nunavut with hopes to make the best of his one-year stint up north as he awaits a better teaching contract. Unlike many of the transient qallunaats who fly to the Arctic, Russ isn’t set on inspiring a class of young minds. He falls somewhere between Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds and Gene Hackman in Hoosiers as he tries to lay down the law with the rambunctious students in a school where the cranky and beleaguered principal, Janace (Tantoo Cardinal), is just happy if the kids show up. White saviour narrative this is not, however, as Russ learns how best to inspire the students through sports.

Russ quickly learns that playing strict taskmaster has no influence on students. Instead, he combines his need to vent his restless energy with Janace’s philosophy of being happy if the students show up and occupy themselves—it means they’re alive and not getting into trouble. He inspires the students to channel their anxieties into sport and starts up an intramural lacrosse league. The students are indifferent at first, for this is not the first time a white southerner has tried to come into town and enforce change before leaving once the going gets tough. However, Russ is very observant and he adopts the practices of the Inuit. He listens. He learns. He collaborates.

Janace’s attitude feels appropriate the more time one spends in Russ’s shoes. The students don’t really need stuffy history lessons: they need guidance, mentorship, and motivation. Affected by one of the highest suicide rates in the world, the youths of the Canadian North carry some awful burdens. The film doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of their pasts as Russ learns more about his students and the families they come from, and in turn, sees his place within the larger legacy of colonialism that Canadians are only now trying to reconcile. Generations of trauma stemming from residential schools and cultural genocide have had long lasting effects on the Inuit as depression gives way to alcoholism, violence, and a sense of isolation. There are many suicides in The Grizzlies and each one is harder to watch as the film gives a frank portrait of the realities kids face growing in this place and time. It’s also an empowering and inspiring story about the ability to provide hope and inspire change by building a sense of community.

Just as the lacrosse team proves a success through its collaboration between the teacher and his students, so too does The Grizzlies make an impact by honestly and faithfully representing the community it depicts. Director Miranda de Pencier, who produced the Oscar-winner Beginners, adopts Russ’s collaborative spirit and lets the words and experiences of her predominantly Inuit cast drive the story. The Grizzlies features several collaborators from the North, including Angry Inuk director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril in a producer credit (she also has a brief cameo as one of the townspeople). The film achieves a sense of authenticity as it invites audiences into the homes of Kugluktuk residents and shows their family dynamics, both the good and the bad, which inspire the students to commit themselves to Russ’s team.

The film finds an excellent ensemble in the young stars who comprise the lacrosse team with Paul Nutarariaq providing a quietly compelling presence Zach, a troubled student in Russ’s class but a silent leader, while Booboo Stewart breathes grit and resilience into the film as Kyle, a student who doubts his abilities and rallies the team’s spirit in the end. Emerald MacDonald is the heart of the film as Miranda, the Grizzlies’ bashful administrative who leans invaluable leadership roles through her work with the team, while Anna Lambe carries some of the film’s most poignant moments as Spring, an artistic young woman who experiences tremendous loss. Schnetzer, who previously appeared in Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, holds the film together with Russ’s observant and inquisitive spirit, but he admirably steps back and lets his young co-stars take the lead of the film while avoiding the clich├ęs one often finds in sports dramas and white saviour films.

The Grizzlies is moving and inspiring, but it doesn’t sugar coat the story at its heart. The power of the film lies in holding up a mirror to the hardships that the youths of Kugluktuk face outside the lacrosse field, and The Grizzlies admirably confronts concerns for mental illness while giving a platform to the systemic inequities that continue to trouble the youth to this day. There’s also a worthwhile message about finding common ground with outsiders to one’s community as the climactic moment of The Grizzlies sees Janace and the elders ideological odds with Russ as she wonders if an outsider can actually be trusted to have the community’s best interests at heart. The Grizzlies, after all, is about the hope and spirit that the exercise provided to the youths of Kugluktuk, and one feels the same cathartic effect on the actors in the beautiful film that de Pencier and her team has made.

The Grizzlies opens in Toronto on April 19.