“How long have you lived here?”
“Six thousand years.”
The Grizzlies tells a familiar story in an unfamiliar setting. We begin with Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), a young, optimistic teacher, repaying his debt to government by taking a job in a remote Northern community. No, not Thunder Bay, further North. Don’t stop at Yellowknife, keep going. Russ finds himself in the Arctic community of Kugluktuk teaching Inuit youth who have bigger concerns than receiving a higher education. Colonialism and residential schools have damaged their families and disrupted their way of life, resulting in rampant alcoholism, abuse, and one of the highest teenaged suicide rates in North America. So it’s no wonder that these teens are resistant, to put it mildly, to this young white guy from the south coming to teach them about history.
Despite taking several literal and metaphorical punches to the face, Sheppard doesn’t give up, and eventually settles on lacrosse as the thing that could show these troubled youths a little about hope and possibility. From Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, and The Mighty Ducks to Coach Carter, The Grizzlies employs several tropes we’ve seen before. But its Arctic setting, characters, and unavoidable truth of the matter make it stand out.
The Grizzlies was filmed in Nunuvut with an almost all Inuit cast, and produced by Stacey Aglok MacDonald (Throat Song) and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (The Angry Inuk), so close attention is paid to showing the culture and issues faced by these communities in an authentic way. The film really shines in the training scenes when traditional music, sometimes with a little modern remix, is combined with the stunning scenery to make for a truly affecting cinematic experience.
Despite its honest and respectful depiction of the Inuk culture, it may bother some viewers that this essentially becomes a classic white saviour narrative. But this is a true story, and just because movies like The Blind Side and The Help have consistently glorified white peoples’ roles in helping the less privileged, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be told. Obviously lacrosse didn’t put an end to the suicide epidemic and the plight of the Inuit, but it did change the lives of at least a few.
While it might feel a little Hollywood at times, The Grizzlies will certainly surprise you at others.