The Grizzlies transcends the usual sports movie cliches with a social justice message you need to hear
Underdog sports movies usually go like this: There’s a group of kids, most of them unathletic and not much used to winning things. A coach – typically male, typically white – rallies the ragtag bunch. They overcome obstacles, they all learn a little from each other, and it culminates in a tear-jerking championship victory. The Mighty Ducks win again. Roll credits.
The Grizzlies has elements of this, but it’s so much more. It’s a look at a culture scarred by colonialism, and a portrait with such depth and empathy that it’s one of the best movies you’ll see all year.
It doesn’t matter if you know anything about lacrosse. It doesn’t matter if you care about sports. You just have to care about the humanity of Indigenous people. And if you don’t, The Grizzlies will school you.
The movie tells the true story of Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), a new teacher locked into working in the remote Canadian Arctic hamlet of Kugluktuk. Sheppard shows up on a bush plane. He’s full of lesson plans and dad jokes, and teachers’ college ideas of discipline and pop quizzes.
From the get go, everyone’s weary of him. They’ve seen bright-eyed southerners before, ones who think they can save the town in six months before they jet off to their next location. Sheppard arrives tone deaf and already desperate to leave, and from the first glance, people read him. The students give withering stares to his “how you doing, fellow kids” act. He rambles to the principal (Tantoo Cardinal in her 42nd film) about his teaching philosophy, but she’s jaded, tired and smarter than him. That’s nice, dear, she sighs. Just show up on time and do your job.
In his defense, it’s a tough, complicated community to crack. Alcoholism is rampant. A bag of chips costs $16. Housing is in such short supply that some people live in the shipping containers that dot the landscape. (In communities in Canada’s north, people get large deliveries in shipping containers, and sometimes they keep them.) Kugluktuk is torn between its traditional way of life, where families hunt and gather together with little need for in-school education, and a western standard few there can even afford.
The students, torn between these conflicting worlds, are killing themselves at an alarming rate. Most of the film is from Sheppard’s perspective, but sometimes, it’s from the perspective of the kids who die. The first scene involves a beautiful boy sitting against a rock. He shoos away his faithful dog before he aims his hunting rifle at his chin. The film doesn’t show us what happens next, but we know. It sets a sorrowful, gripping mood.
Everyone – even the hapless but ever-evolving Sheppard – does their best. Every point of view is clear. Every character is believable and lovingly drawn, from Sheppard’s hard-drinking teaching colleague (Will Sasso) to an abusive dad who’s a residential school survivor.
The real villains in The Grizzlies, in fact, aren’t people at all. They are colonialism and poverty – clear and ever-present from the opening credits. The first four minutes are photos of Indigenous kids stripped of their language and identity, wedged into rows of wooden desks under the grim watch of white teachers. One photo shows them forced to line up, arms extended so they look like human clotheslines. It makes you cry. It makes you angry. It makes you long for a better world and eager to understand, which is sort of the effect The Grizzlies has overall.
Miranda de Pencier, director of The Grizzlies, is white, but there was extensive Inuit involvement. Producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald is from Kugluktuk, and went to the same high school as the characters. The filmmakers consulted with the community, held performing arts workshops and hired crew members and (previously untrained) actors from there. This includes the lovely Emerald MacDonald, who plays Mir, the smartest cookie of the lot. (The real Mir is the deputy mayor there now.) Overall, 91 per cent of the cast and 33 per cent of the crew was Inuit or Indigenous.
The movie relies on Schnetzer striking just the right tone – not too doe-eyed, not too authoritative – and he does. It shows us long shots of the picturesque beauty of Nunavut, with its rolling white hills and its dirt streets blanketed in white and lined with snowmobile tracks. The score by Garth Stevenson threads it all together, and brings us to tears and back again. The soundtrack is filled with gems from the Canadian Indigenous music scene, like DJ Shub and Tanya Tagaq, who’s from Nunavut and won Canada’s 2014 Polaris Prize.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was nominated for some Canadian Screen Awards. It’s showing in limited release in Canada right now, and it deserves a robust second life via streaming and VOD.
On the Canadian $20 bill, there’s a quote from Gabrielle Roy: “Could we ever know each other in the slighest without the arts?” You don’t have to know about sports to enjoy The Grizzlies. It’s deeper than that. This is art that helps us know each other, and it’s worth your time. 4/5
The Grizzlies (2018)
Does it pass the Beschdel Test?: Yes.
Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Tantoo Cardinal, Will Sasso, Booboo Stewart, Emerald MacDonald, Eric Schweig, Natar Ungalaaq.
Directed by: Miranda de Pencier.
Written by: Moira Walley-Beckett, Graham Yost.