It may sound like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel with sports films if we’re now showcasing lacrosse. However, in the case of director Miranda de Pencier’s “The Grizzlies,” our barrel runneth over. Like any good, inspirational athletic adventure, the film forges a strong connection with the human side of the story. There’s a fervent, fiery emotional drive propelling this true-life tale of a teacher who inspired his underdog students to take up their sticks, overcome unrelenting sorrow and unite an unsung community. The film, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, saw its March 20 U.S. release date delayed due to the coronavirus, which is a shame since it’s exactly the type of uplifting movie that could boost spirits during these bleak times.
Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) has taken a job as a history teacher at Kugluktuk High School to pay off his college debt to the Canadian government. Located in the Arctic, or “the end of the world” as his colleague Mike (Will Sasso) calls it, the remote town has the highest suicide rate in North America. That oppressive sense of misery hits the wide-eyed new resident instantly on his introductory drive through town. He sees buildings in disrepair, a tiny police station, and tough, restless teens smoking and drinking. Russ’ plan is to do his civic duty and then move on to teaching at a prep school in a more industrious area. But for now, he’s excited to inspire his very first crop of students. Naturally, they aren’t going to make it easy for him, being that Russ is a white man in a primarily Inuit community that’s inherently distrusting of his kind.
The first day of school ends with many absentees, miscommunications due to cultural misunderstandings, and a fist fight with a combative student, Zach (Paul Nutarariaq). Russ’ complaints to principal Janace (Tantoo Cardinal) are heard, but she’s reticent to interfere since the struggles are a result of their culture putting family first and “unnecessary” education last. With most of the class stuck in toxic relationships — some romantic and others familial — they’re set up for failure. That is, until Russ gets the bright idea to form a lacrosse team. He firmly believes that if the kids have an outlet to channel their frustrations, it could transform their lives and those around them. Convincing the teens and their parents is no easy task, but they inevitably begin training with hopes to play in the lacrosse nationals in Toronto.
Though the film bears similarities to “Lean on Me,” “Stand and Deliver,” and “Dangerous Minds” (to name a few of its more obvious inspirations) and hits the conventional tonal notes of most sports movies, it holds its own creatively with cultural specificity and well-drawn, emotionally evocative characters. Russ (whose real-life counterpart earns a cameo as a referee and serves as the film’s lacrosse consultant) and his fish-out-of-water qualities provide the conduit for the story’s educational aspects. These revolve around the townsfolk’s traumatic backstory and their longstanding distrust of the white people who abused them and forced them to assimilate. In order to keep the proceedings from collapsing into a “white savior” narrative, screenwriters Graham Yost and Moira Walley-Beckett make the story less about a white man saving the natives and more about the way sports can enrich and heal a community.
Supporting characters earn their time in the spotlight. Their conflict is motivated through easily understandable internal and external stakes without any gooey, overly saccharine manipulation. Absentee Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) and Zach are connected through their familial constraints as main providers. The once-shy Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) and once-laconic Kyle (Booboo Stewart), whose outer shells barely conceal hurt, stress and anguish, blossom into thoughtful, well-spoken young adults. These characters also parallel each other as their home lives are both marked by abuse. Stewart in particular gives a vulnerable performance filled with intense empathy, shedding masculine bravado in favor of a polished sense of tenderness.
Cinematographer Jim Denault and de Pencier, making her feature-length directing debut, bring artistic panache to a locale audiences don’t often see. The grey overcast skies provide a good sense of mood, instilling this portrait with a crisp, somber shading. There’s electricity in the training montage, utilizing wide shots of the team in the harsh snow choreographed in sync with the driving drums and chants of the soundtrack. They also echo “Rocky II’s” charming chicken chase sequence as the team races against Maggie the dog.
While the film is stamped with an R rating from the MPAA, as it deals with suicide, trauma and domestic abuse, it doesn’t seem entirely justified. Soft-pedaling those facets would be a detriment to the narrative and the characters’ real-life tale. It would sacrifice authenticity if these things weren’t captured and discussed in a realistic way. Despite the serious overtones, there are small moments of levity interspersed. From Russ’ eye-opening trip to the town’s co-op, to the helpful townsperson not understanding the point of jogging, to the fake-out filmmaking artistry of a deflected goal, these gags provide necessary tension release.
Perhaps the most profound and poignant part of the feature is the end credits, where the filmmakers pull a “Where are they now” with the real members of the Grizzlies. Their epilogues, showcasing how the lessons of lacrosse radiated throughout their lives as activists and members of their tribe, are moving. It’s a testament to the powerful impact sports programs can have, not just on the life of one person, but on the community as a whole.