If you’re going to tell a “white savior” story, this is the way to do it. Yes, The Grizzlies (which is based on a true story) is about a fired-up white outsider coming into a close-knit Indigenous community full of confidence that, with his passion and approachability, he can connect with the skeptical teens he’s there to teach and really make a difference. And, to be fair, he does exactly that. But not before he’s forced to learn some hard truths about the folly of thinking you can “fix” another culture — or understand people who’ve been traumatized for generations by colonialism if you haven’t been through it yourself.
Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) arrives in cold, remote Kugluktuk in Nunavut territory planning to teach for a year and then get the heck back to the city and a cushy prep-school job. His colleagues tell him that the local teens face serious challenges — including poverty, domestic abuse, hunger, and a devastating suicide rate — but he thinks he knows how to handle them. He’s tragically wrong, and all signs point to his stint in Kugluktuk being a failure…until he actually starts listening, and then he starts a lacrosse team.
The result is an emotional story about the power of empathy, humility, and teamwork. Director Miranda de Pencier hits all the beats you’d expect from an inspirational sports drama — rag-tag misfits learning to play together, traditions and team expectations clashing, the big game — but their authenticity helps them add up to “affecting” rather than “cliched.” Sheppard and his co-stars, many of whom are Nunavut locals, turn in strong performances. Emerald MacDonald is a stand-out as quiet but fierce Miranda, who isn’t afraid to set Russ straight more than once, as are Booboo Stewart as kindhearted Kyle and Paul Nutarariaq as defiant but vulnerable Zach.
The Grizzlies is always respectful to the Inuit culture, making it abundantly clear that Russ is the one in the wrong here — not the kids or their circumstances. One of the film’s most powerful moments is when Kyle, fresh off a confrontation with his abusive father, responds with empathy rather than anger; he knows his dad was abused, too, when he was forced by white people to attend a residential school as a child, and he knows that the trauma of that experience and others like it affect every single person in Kugluktuk. For those who still need their eyes opened to truths like these, The Grizzlies will be a powerful wake-up call. And for those who’ve lived those truths for generations, it will be a resonant story of coming together to find a way forward. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Baughan: While this poignant true life story of a young teacher who changes the lives of the troubled indigenous students he encounters may initially seem like another white saviour narrative, sensitivity and realism ensure it never succumbs to that cliche. Director Miranda de Pencier immersed herself in Arctic Canada’s Inuit community before filming her feature debut, and the result is a compelling, authentic study of a community under stress. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale To see a rousing, based-on-real-life underdog sports story in which all the driving characters are played by Inuit actors is a balm for the soul, especially now. The screenplay is built from real people and experience, but takes the focus off the compassionate teacher, and potential “white savior” coming in and fixing what’s broken, and places it on the kids themselves. Their struggles, joys, and successes, as big or small as they are, make this film moving and memorable. In The Grizzlies, there is both pain and optimism, all wrapped in a believable, entertaining story you’ll enjoy.
Susan Wloszczyna: Ben 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. Read full review.
Pam Grady: To Sir, With Love meets uplifting sports saga meets hardscrabble drama in this moving tale drawn from real life. Ben Schnetzer is Russ, a recent college graduate who has come to a depressed Inuit community in Canada’s Nunavut province as part of a government program to bring teachers to underserved communities. Shocked by how bleak his students’ lives are, he introduces them to lacrosse – ironically, a sport created hundreds of years ago by First Nations’ people – hoping enthusiasm for the sport will improve their lives and keep them in school. The film essentially tells two stories: In a way it is a coming-of-age tale for Russ, who may have come to town to teach but discovers just how much he has to learn. At the same time, it delivers a devastating portrait of the poverty, domestic violence, family dysfunction, and epidemic of suicides that are part of the kids’ everyday struggles. The two stories dovetail on the playing field where the lessons learned might be predictable but no less satisfying because of it. Director Miranda de Pencier makes a striking feature debut with this emotionally resonant drama.
Kathia Woods Movies sometimes can center the white character as the savior and make the minorities the secondary characters even when the story is based on real-life events. The Grizzlies, thank goodness, did not take that route. It showed you the pain and suffering of the Natives in that Arctic town but, most importantly, what happens when you take away hope. All they had left were their traditions. The Grizzlies sadly demonstrate what happens when you erase hope; the consequences can be dire. The suicide scenes are heartbreaking but necessary to understand the depths of desperation these young people are suffering. Everything was taken from them, and Lacrosse, in an odd way, is restoring hope. I like how The Grizzlies didn’t sugarcoat the struggles of the community. People must see the consequences of genocide. We must remember it’s all of our responsibility to help, which is the biggest takeaway from this film.
Jennifer Merin The Grizzlies is a marvelous film, one that soars above similarly themed underdog sports movies, avoids the objectionable white savior meme and engages you in truly socially conscious entertainment. If you’re in need of inspiration, this enlightening flick should do the trick. Read full review.
Loren King Sports and teacher/savior cliches abound in The Grizzlies but that doesn’t make this based-on-truth movie any less enjoyable. Instead, the film embraces and transcends the sports and inspirational movie cliches. We may know where we’re going from the start but the trip is well worth the ride. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Miranda de Pencier’s The Grizzlies is much more than a typical feel-good high-school sports film. Although the protagonist seems to be the white teacher-turned-lacrosse coach Russ Sheppard (well played by Ben Schnetzer), the movie centers on the young Inuit students living in the Canadian Arctic, which has the highest reported suicide rate anywhere in the world. It’s the players (nearly all cast with Inuit and indigenous actors) with their various struggles with loss, abuse, and substance use, that make this a compelling story. Viewers will want to learn more about the conditions in these diamond mine towns, the history of how Canada has failed the Inuit people, and the true circumstances surrounding the misfit group of underdogs who became Kuglugtuk’s first high-school lacrosse team. This is exactly the sort of thought-provoking and educational film families with teens should watch together and discuss afterward.
Nell Minow: A familiar plot about kids learning discipline and teamwork through sports is brought to life through the specifics that make the characters and the sense of place — and of displacement — central to the story.
Liz Whittemore This film shines in its talented cast of Inuit kids. Their personalized stories prevent The Grizzlies from falling into the “white savior” category. As Russ, the White teacher, Ben Schnetzer does a nice job balancing early ambition and genuine concern for his students. As a superfan of lacrosse, this was an engrossing look at the sport and its origins. Actors Booboo Stewart, Emerald MacDonald, Paul Nutarariaq, and Anna Lambe all guide us through the delicate balance between indigenous identity and modern influence from “The South”. The film’s tackling the high rate of teen suicide can be difficult to watch, but this dark reality is essential in telling this true story. If you’re aren’t crying and cheering by the film’s climax, I’d be surprised. The Grizzlies will undoubtedly win you over.
Marina Antunes Miranda de Pencier’s feature film debut, The Grizzlies, features everything you find in your average “kids finding their way through sports” movie, but with so much more heart and authenticity than the majority of the movies of this ilk. Featuring a wonderful collection of performances from established and new talent, this is a heartwarming, feel-good story of overcoming adversity that doesn’t feel irreverent.
Cate Marquis Miranda de Pencier’s truth-based film The Grizzlies brings a young white Canadian teacher to an Inuit village in the country’s far north, where he expects to work only long enough to to pay off his college obligation. Life is grim in the remote village, with rampant alcoholism, poverty and high suicide rates, particularly among the young. Resentment and disdain abound for the white man’s ways. No one expects this young teacher from “the south” to stick around long. Looking for a way to motivate his students, he introduces them to his favorite sport, lacrosse. They are cool to the idea a first but eventually gradually embrace this energetic sport invented centuries ago by native peoples. The Grizzlies is a sports story but like the best kind of sports movies, it is really about people more that the sport. With elements of Friday Night Lights and Eddie the Eagle, this fact-based tale is enlightening and uplifting.
Title: The Grizzlies
Directors: Miranda de Pencier
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Running Time: 102 minutes
Language: English, Inuktituk with English subtitles
Screenwriters: Moira Walley-Beckett, Graham Yost
Distribution Company: Elevation Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin