By Jim Slotek
In a movie year when the words “white savior” have been flung around like a lacrosse ball, a film like The Grizzlies at first seems from another time.
The true story of a collection of desperate and near hopeless teens in Kugluktuk, Nunavut whose pent-up energy was channeled into lacrosse by a white teacher, it is vulnerable to criticisms of appropriation, with both a non-Indigenous director (Miranda de Pencier) and scriptwriter (Graham Yost, of Justified fame).
And yet somehow, eventually, The Grizzlies overcomes those tropes, perhaps through the imprint of both its producer (Alethea Arnaquqa-Baril of Angry Inuk fame) and its cast of local Indigenous kids who seem incapable of inauthentic moments.
And there’s also the terrain. It may be that any story told with the barrenness and beauty of the Arctic as a backdrop would be mesmerizing.
Or it may be that The Grizzlies is just so unflinching in its portrayal of its subject that it breaks out of its narrative strait-jacket and establishes its own story.
The facts are that Kugluktuk was an extreme microcosm of scourges affecting Native youth all over the country, and especially the North. A town of barely 1,000 people had a recent suicide count of 15, many of them teens, when Saskatchewan teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) accepted a teaching job.
The story is told from Russ’s point-of-view, evoking a harder-edged Northern Exposure. A bag of chips is priced like a sack of gourmet coffee in the local store. His students tend not to show up. He discovers them on the streets getting wasted and heading home to families torn apart by substance abuse and violence.
Depressed, his only sounding boards are an unflappable and jovial white math teacher (Will Sasso) and a cynical Native principal named Janace (Tantoo Cardinal) who believes he’s just passing through like other Southerners before him. When Russ comes up with the idea of taking his college lacrosse training and introducing the sport as de facto therapy, she is Ms No, apparently too used to disappointment to approve any half-baked ideas from an outsider.
This fish-out-of-water approach is probably The Grizzlies’ weakest aspect, leaving the locals in the role of “other” to an outsider whose vantage point is the viewer’s as well. The cast of Kugluktuk youth are so strongly defined as characters, that any of them could have told the story effectively from their own point of view.
Notwithstanding that missed narrative opportunity, the teens do emerge as defined characters – particularly Emerald MacDonald as Miranda, a young woman with a personality so buried, she is practically mute when we meet her (but who emerges as one of the brightest spirits in the film). Zach (Paul Nutarariaq) is one of the most touching, dedicated to protecting his little brother from an increasingly toxic home life.
There are other characters we begin to get to know, and then… The film’s lead ups and depictions of various suicides is tragic and is lent a grim dignity. De Pencier did well by these characters and frames the entire story beautifully in a landscape that is both crushing and awe-inspiring.
The last act, which takes place at a big city tournament, is a departure from the rest of the film. But even that jaw agape experience has verisimilitude, being as it was the cast’s own first experience outside the North.
The Grizzlies. Directed by Miranda de Pencier, Written by Graham Yost and Moira Walley-Beckett. Starring Ben Schnetzer, Emerald MacDonald and Paul Nutarariaq. Opens Friday, April 19 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria.