The Grizzlies. Directed by Miranda de Pencier. Starring Ben Schnetzer, Paul Nutarariaq and Emerald MacDonald. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Who doesn’t love a rousing underdog sports drama? Better yet, one based on a true story. And how about one in which team practice takes place in between seal hunts?
The Grizzlies is all of these. First-time director Miranda de Pencier has crafted a heartfelt film that humanizes the grim statistics about youth suicide in the north. Rates among Inuit youth are some of the highest in the world: 11 times the national average, according to Health Canada.
Newly minted teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) knows none of this when he steps off a small plane in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, accompanied by a few locals and outnumbered by the crates of liquor being delivered. It soon becomes clear why: when Russ asks fellow teacher Mike (Will Sasso) how he handles life in the North, Mike responds “I do the same thing everyone else does, I drink.”
Russ faces the same challenge with his students, many of whom arrive hungover or don’t show up to school at all. For some, the decision to skip school is culturally or economically motivated: how can algebra help in a community that is still largely hunting-based, and where attending school means your siblings will go hungry that night?
“Welcome to the edge of the world,” says Mike grimly. “Or the end of the world, depending on how long you’ve been here.” The spectre of residential schools still lingers, too, as recently as a generation earlier than Russ’s students. (The last Indian Residential School, in the province of Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.) Abuse and loss of cultural identity begat much of the substance abuse and depression plaguing native peoples.
Undeterred, Russ sees an opportunity to get the students involved in the game of lacrosse. The national summer sport of Canada is the perfect outlet for the kids’ sadness and frustration, and a good excuse to keep them off booze and in class. But school administrator Janace (veteran actor Tantoo Cardinal) isn’t convinced. “I urge you to not add to the long list of promises that’ve been made to the Inuit that have never been kept.”
The result? Kyle (Booboo Stewart) stands up to his violent father. Shy Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) learns to speak up and to confront her abusive sister. Zach (Paul Nutarariaq) learns to balance the traditional ways of his elders with his new sports passion.
Russ provides the equipment but it’s the kids who bring the heart and determination, despite the frigid training conditions – the vistas are sensational – and opposition from home. Before long there’s talk of the team heading to Toronto for the high school nationals, when most of the kids have never been further than their snowmobile could take them.
The subject matter is capably wrought: confident, not cloying. Credit scriptwriters Moira Walley-Beckett (a Vancouver native and Emmy-winner for Breaking Bad) and Graham Yost (multiple Emmy-winner; the writer who brought you Speed) for tackling the white saviour trope with sensitivity and just the right dose of humour. And filmmakers don’t just talk the talk: a suicide prevention number is shown before the credits roll.
Yes, this is an underdog story not unlike the legions before it, but the stakes of winning versus losing are rarely this high, and the outcome rarely this satisfying.