I watched the trailer for 'The Grizzlies', and there was one fear that wouldn't escape my mind - that this was going to be a run-of-the-mill story of a white man going into an underprivileged school or community and saving the day. Well, I was half-right. Based on a remarkable true story, 'The Grizzlies' might hit all the beats one can expect from a film of this nature, but rest assured, here is a story and an emotional arc that certainly doesn't make the white male "northerner" out to be the hero.
Miranda de Pencier's directorial debut 'The Grizzlies' takes place in the small town of Kugluktuk, a region of Nunavut that's home to an Inuit community. A title card appears at the very beginning, warning audiences in advance that Nunavut has the highest rate of suicide in North America. An alarming and shocking statistic, and it's almost immediately in the film where we first see those effects. Cut to an aeroplane journey over the barren arctic lands where we meet Russ (Ben Schnetzer, 'Pride'), a new grad teacher with a can-do attitude and a never-say-die smile. Russ is on a short-term placement to teach history to the kids here before going on to bigger and better things, but he's met with the cruel reality that these kids have bigger problems. Russ is ignorant and self-righteous, and whilst in fairness he tries his best, the burdens and set way of life of his students begin to weigh on him as he is confronted with rough home lives, abuse and alcohol issues.
Drowning under the ferocity of his situation, Russ turns to the only tool he has in his toolkit, and he decides to introduce lacrosse to the kids in town. This is, of course, met at first with trepidation, skittishness, and an overwhelming sense of distaste towards an outsider's sport. Despite all the various challenges he faces, Russ manages to bring hope and joy to these kids, resulting in a genuine feelgood film.
When Russ is on the plane to his destination, he turns to one of the passengers and asks how long he's lived there. "6,000 years," is the response, and while it plays for laughs, it's clear that viewers will be invited into a community that very few people know about, one that has tried to uphold its culture through years of colonisation. Unfortunately, it's said appropriation that has led to all the issues this community now faces, and de Pencier does an exceptional job of highlighting the strength of the community against the backdrop of issues. This could so easily have been a "white saviour" film, but actually, it's only when Russ includes the community and gives them a platform by stepping back himself that his project takes off.
It isn't Russ or his assistant coach and maths teacher Mike (Will Sasso, 'The Three Stooges') that save the day - and likewise, it isn't the hard-nosed principal and main adversary Janace (Tantoo Cardinal, 'Dances With Wolves') that is the biggest stumbling block. There is practically no nuance to this film in terms of plot points, beats or structure, but there is plenty when it comes to the community. de Pencier saves 'The Grizzlies' from being a poor man's 'Remember The Titans' by not being afraid to address the issues at hand. There are real problems at the forefront of this film; problems that deeply affect both students and teachers alike, and due to the depth of the characters and the impact of their stories, audiences are forced to sympathise.
Despite all the various challenges Russ faces, he manages to bring hope and joy to these kids, resulting in a genuine feel-good film.
The magnitude of Russ' mistakes are felt, and you can't help as a viewer to worry about every individual. These kids are starving, they are lost and dangerously, they see no hope in sight. Russ' introduction of lacrosse might give them a platform to thrive, but it's the sense of purpose and fulfilment that really drives the success story. de Pencier is careful not to give the appearance there is nothing for this community to look forward to, but the reality is that through team sports they have a reason to keep on going, even when that entails becoming Inuit hunters. Their way of life is no less important, but how they see and support each other might be the difference between life and death.
In order to play lacrosse, these kids are making significant sacrifices, and some of those will catch up with them, and all of those will define them. 'The Grizzlies' might be incredibly tacky to the point that I sometimes even rolled my eyes, but the heart of this story absolutely shines through. It really loses its way when it tries to be an inspirational sports drama, but when it focuses on the Inuit community, its people, and the troubles they face, this film gives you every reason to smile and even shed a tear.