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Canadian filmmaker Miranda de Pencier‘s The Grizzlies, a truth-based sports narrative set in the Canadian arctic, is a story centered around the experiences of a recently graduated White teacher, Russ, working his first job as a high school history teacher in the isolated Inuit town of Kuluktuk, where the hardships of life far exceed its joys.

Russ (Ben Schnetzer), who intends to spend a year in Kuluktuk before returning to ‘the South’ to take a cushy job at a posh private school, is shocked by the level of despair he encounters in the community which is impoverished to the point of starvation, and where alcoholism is a rampant problem and the suicide rate — especially among teenagers — is sky high. He figures its his job to inspire and instill discipline in his students to better their lives.

Russ must reach the kids to teach the kids, but they want nothing he has to offer and continually make fun of him for his lack of knowledge about their lives, their culture, their community. The kids are tough and troubled, many of them struggling for survival in dysfunctional families struggling against desperate circumstances. In fact, the entire community — the school kids, their families and other townspeople — resent and resist any White presence in their midst. They are intent upon protecting their culture and preserving their traditional way of life, both of which have been undermined for centuries by systemic abuse, exploitation and neglect by the White Canadian government.

Russ, who’s basically a good guy with do-gooder instincts, gets gung-ho about breaking the community’s cycle of despair by instilling in his students a sense of purpose and hope. He turns to sport to spark them, teaching them to play lacrosse, a game invented by First Nation peoples centuries ago and now Canada’s national sport. The kids have to be lured to their first practice, but soon become hooked. Basically, Russ’ play ploy works.

But, the introduction of the game to the community causes a huge culture clash which escalates when Russ enters the Kuluktuk team in the Canadian national playoffs. In showing how that culture clash is resolved, this compelling and poignant narrative reveals and deals with a lot of serious social issues that prevail within and beyond the borders of Kuluktuk.

And, although the story is quite male-centric, kudos to director de Pencier and screenwriters Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost for boldly acknowledging the influence of women in the Inuit community. Four important female characters, beautifully portrayed, shape the narrative. Miranda (Emerald MacDonald), the only student steadily ready to study, teaches the teacher about the culture and the community, organizes the team, raises funds for the team, represents them before the town council and successfully defends herself and her ambitions against abuse from her family. Spring (Anna Lambe) breaks through boys club barriers by joining the team as an excellent and fully equal player. Adam’s Grandmother, the wise and respected iconic elder (yes, a woman and not her husband) whose word has the weight to carry the community. And, Janace (played by the iconic Tantoo Cardinal) who is pretty much in charge of everything administrative in the community and who reins in the often overly enthusiastic Russ to the deep seated realities of life in a marginalized First Nations community.

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 Interview with director Miranda de Pencier

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Grizzlies is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for August 14, 2020

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