Moviegoers may be more than familiar with the typical rhythm of the inspirational true-life sports drama by now. Between the likes of Remember the Titans and the layered intricacies of last spring’s The Way Back, we’ve been spoiled. Granted, not all of them are worthwhile, but there is always something about the more unexpected story path that can reward a curious patron. Please keep in mind this review is for an at-times dark story, but it is also a very compelling one embracing the strongest feelings of community outreach in the wake of marginalization. Certainly, the kind of story one can best appreciate, and personally grow from in this tough time we are experiencing. Such is the fate for The Grizzlies.
On one of the farthest corners of North America, in the remote town of Kugluktuk, Nunavut in the year 2004 stands newcomer Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer). A young teacher making the most of an awkward opportunity, he’s assigned to this small community, merely to pay off government student debt before lining up a more reputable gig at a major university. Right off the bat, you can tell he sticks out poorly around much of the primarily Inuit population. Not just skin color, but certainly also social class and level of education.
The kids he’s teaching turn their noses, already certain of their uncertain future, as their town reels from multiple incidents, with the highest suicide rate in North America. Russ feels determined to act, give his students an avenue of expression. Through the help of his school colleagues, for better (Will Sasso playing the gym coach) or worse (Tantoo Cardinal as the principal), he does so through the game of lacrosse. In no time flat, he hesitantly forms scrimmage teams to build up strength and raise funds for a unique opportunity in the big city of Toronto. Challenges arise, so do myriad controversies.
For one thing, Russ is a steadfast, nervous individual, a character whom Schnetzer portrays with a certain flair. Though from the perspective of the Inuit cast, they just see him as another white guy they cannot trust. I understand the need to tap on that dynamic without going full throttle. It takes most of the film, per formula, for a bond to build that shatters that notion. Especially with the community at large who fail to see the point of a lacrosse team to solve their problems. Let alone the need to fundraise a big road trip to the other end of the country.
Then there are the troubled students themselves, whose families see culture first over anything else, upholding a certain way of life before it loses its heritage. Zach (Paul Nutarariaq) is among them, a violent individual in a home splitting apart, between misunderstanding parents and a little brother whom he will protect like a hawk. Kyle (Booboo Stewart) can’t live under the same roof as his dad, while Spring (Anna Lambe) is at her own tipping point, mourning the loss of her boyfriend. Miranda (Emerald MacDonald with the film’s strongest supporting role) is like a warrior, balancing her smarts and business savvy as Russ’s assistant coach while dodging her family’s constant insults. That’s firm resolve, and I couldn’t help but warmly smile, knowing I was witnessing a unique form of acting expression. MacDonald and Stewart win out especially, building layer upon complex layer of their psyches, desperate to break free.
The film itself is authentically Canadian, wearing that badge with pride. With that perspective, with the Inuit perspective in close mind, it’s a remarkably empathic change of course for the typical sports drama. And an honest reminder of how a good game can unite a community. First-time feature director Miranda de Pencier is as much a natural behind the camera, as she’s always been in front and elsewhere. Capturing the quiet, desolate, simple scenery of an otherwise unfamiliar landscape alongside cinematographer Jim Denault (Yellowstone), we see a mildly bleak undertone around snow-covered streets waiting to be uplifted. And even that can’t come with plenty of noise, thankfully not at Tenet level volumes.
The story, penned by Moira Wallet-Beckett (Anne with an E) and Graham Yost (Justified) breeds zippy activity, never really taking too much time to slow down between training, the games, and family drama. Any semblance of comic relief, that’s where I was probably finding a rough distraction. Sasso tries his best, but I just wasn’t sure if he was helping much. Trying to balance dark and light can be a challenge for any film, it was a tough one here. For some viewers, it’s a thick pill to swallow; it was for me. That’s part of why while I recommend it, it may be hard to revisit in the future.
There were times where The Grizzlies got very gut-wrenchingly raw, speaking to human empowerment like a steady drumbeat. Anything outside of that was the only time where it felt like a separate film. It’s at all engines when it can tell its message of unity without going off the rails. It may have a deep R rating, but I’d say that’s a little unjust. For what it can do right as an educational tool, which doesn’t surprise me for a Canadian production, it’s worth bringing the older teens in to watch.
Cringe-worthy as it may be to some, The Grizzlies still fulfills its purpose to open the world a little further. For the nation of Nunavut, we’re seeing a true celebration of optimism. For the game of lacrosse, it’s an opportunity for a mainstream audience to see the game in action, just what it means for the players. As Ross sees that, so do we all. And for the common sports movie, it’s a refreshing spin back to their commonplace roots. A hybrid between Stand and Deliver and The Mighty Ducks, there’s much to appreciate here.
Discovering a healthy way to channel emotion into a greater goal, despite the challenges and personal setbacks around a team, that’s perhaps why so few sports dramas succeed nowadays that they can’t balance that middle ground. De Pencier should be proud of accomplishing just that and paving a blazon path for the genre moving forward. Finally debuting online in the states after a very brief run in whatever theaters were open earlier this summer, it will be worth a look. Followed by a longer discussion regarding unification against marginalization. If that can grow through this film, it’s done its job correctly. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Grizzlies debuts digitally in the US September 15; rated R for language, and some drug/alcohol use involving teens; 102 minutes.