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The Grizzlies

By: Trevor Chartrand

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more Canadian film than The Grizzlies;  the inspiring true story of an impoverished Nunavut community battling mental illness by creating a sports team.  Over ten years in the making, this long-time passion project of director Miranda de Pencier is a not only a well-made dramatic film, but also a small taste of the type of media representation First Nations and Inuit citizens deserve.

When Saskatchewan-born high school teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), takes a job in a small Nunavut community, he finds himself culture-shocked by the living conditions his students face.  Many suffer from emotional and physical abuse at home, and many students take their own lives or suffer from alcohol abuse.  In an effort to increase class attendance and ‘rescue’ these kids, Russ starts a lacrosse league, promising the sport will bring life to their community.  He soon discovers that he’s in over his head;  perceived as an entitled outsider rather than a hero.  Russ is chastised for trying to ‘fix’ a culture he doesn’t understand – or belong to.

The Grizzlies script is seamlessly crafted by writers Graham Yost (who brought us Speed, of all things) and Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad), with a story that just barely toes the melodrama line.  After viewing the trailer (which features characters yelling, dramatic sobbing, and inspiring, emotional music), my initial worry was that this would feel like a lifetime movie-of-the week.  Upon viewing the film, however, I was thankful to have my preliminary concerns proven wrong.  There are a few places where this film could have easily taken that misstep into over-the-top territory, but the marrying of restrained direction, a tight script and strong performances all keep The Grizzlies incredibly grounded – and respectful to the subjects of this true story.

The Inuit cast of students all perform exuberantly, but one particular cast member deserves extra accolades and acknowledgement.  As coach’s assistant Miranda Atatahak, actress Emerald MacDonald is the true unsung hero of the film – this low-key protagonist drives the narrative, arguably more than Russ Sheppard does.  She begins the film as a timid and shy teen, later becoming the intermediate between Russ and his students;  bridging the cultural gap so her teacher can see eye to eye with the lacrosse players.  Her performance is nuanced and moving, but could easily be unjustly overlooked.

It’s most refreshing to see real-life characters that haven’t been re-written to be heroes or saints for the sake of the film.  Russ Sheppard’s character, for example, doesn’t travel to Nunavut to change the landscape or impact the community – the job just looks good on a resume and fast tracks him to a private school gig.  Even some of the embellished facts are justified at the end of the film, with an epilogue that identifies the narrative liberties that streamline the story.  The film corrects the details that don’t line up;  an added touch of honesty for the viewer to take away.

To the sports-fans, be warned: this may be a movie about a lacrosse team, but there isn’t much actual gameplay featured during this film’s runtime.  Brief sequences and montages are included, but don’t expect twenty minutes of lacrosse action during ‘the big final game.’  This isn’t the Rocky franchise, folks.  The heart of this story is the characters, and we see a lot more of them than we see of the sport.

The Grizzlies presents the true north in all its sparse, vast beauty.  The landscape is treacherous yet breathtaking, unforgiving yet awe-inspiring.  But what will really pull viewers into this world is the incredible soundtrack, featuring music that combines hip-hop beats with a traditional indigenous chant.  This memorable sound has a heart-pounding intensity, and effectively sets the stage for what life is like in this community.

Finally, Miranda de Pencier has brought us a powerful entry into the Canadian film library with The Grizzlies, an entertaining and memorable drama about reconciliation and cultural culpability.  The film shows the fiery spark and passion of its subjects and, most importantly, teaches us that the sins of our past cannot be undone and are not easily forgiven.

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Trevor Chartrand:
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