Underdog sports movies have been a Hollywood staple forever, whether it’s the Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks or Rudy. But The Grizzlies, about a real-life lacrosse team of Inuit high-schoolers in a small Arctic town in Canada, has much more at stake than just winning or losing. It’s about living rather than dying in a colonized community where a diamond mine is the main source of income and few opportunities exist for the marginalized indigenous people who reside there. Drugs and alcoholism are rampant as are domestic abuse and teen suicides.
Director Miranda de Pencier has to perform on a tightrope act of sorts as a white savior in the form of Russ (Ben Schnetzer), a preppy young male history teacher from “the South,” arrives to fulfill a one-year stint in Kugluktuk. Taking some cues from the likes of To Sir with Love or Stand and Deliver, he finds most of his students fail to commit to studying or even showing up given their lack of opportunity and hope for betterment. Russ just can’t earn the trust of most of his charges until a light bulb goes off in the lacrosse enthusiast’s head that a sport that is native to their culture might give them a reason to get their acts together and to bring the students together as a makeshift family. Soon enough being a team gives them pride, identity and the feeling they are not alone in the world.
Schnetzer and Will Sasso as his burly white sidekick are appealing enough in their roles. But it is the Inuit young actors who have a bigger investment in telling this story. Given that this a culture not given to running their mouths – they raise their eyebrows to say yes – the young cast’s performances are built upon a sense of authenticity, understatement, body language and facial expressions. They keep things real and are the main reason I was left clutching wads of tissue at the film’s conclusion. That’s because they are allowed to save themselves.