Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP, reviews 'The Grizzlies,' a film unique among sports dramas for its focus on difficult teen issues.
In one of the farthest reaches of the Arctic in northern Canada is the tiny village of Kugluktuk, in Nunvut Territory, where a heartbreaking story is told of the Inuit youth who have nowhere to go and no way out of alcoholism and depression. The Grizzlies is a 2018 Canadian sports drama directed by Canadian filmmaker Miranda de Pencier, who began as an actress playing the role of Josie Pye in the Canadian TV series Anne of Green Gables and who won Best Direction in a Feature Film from the Directors Guild of Canada in 2018 for this her first feature film. Based on a true story, The Grizzlies is written by Graham Yost (Justified, The Americans) and Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad, Anne with an E) and takes place in 2004 when the suicide rate among youth is the highest per capita in North America.
Distributed by Elevation Pictures for select theaters in the US starting July 31, 2020, this somewhat obscure film is packed full with inspiration and portrays the value of sports to bring people together and unite them with a common purpose and direction. This is a film for a pandemic-gripped world offering much-needed hope allowing the audience to cheer on the underdog in the world of competitive sports.
De Pencier purposely involved many Nunavut youth in the film as possible, including first-time actors Anna Lambe, who plays Spring in the film, and Paul Nutarariag as Zach, both of whom received Canadian Screen Awards nominations for their roles. This film brought the Arctic native Americans into center focus and was not about a white-savior narrative, as some critics suggest. Nutarariag says, “It’s absolutely not a white-saviour movie. It was not about Miranda trotting in to Iqaluit thinking she’s some top gun. She was humbled by the experience she had in Iqaluit.” It is a film about Inuit students who, with the help of a caring teacher, transformed themselves to be healthier, contributing citizens to society. De Pencier says, "Having spent some time in the North, I'm feeling a responsibility and I'm really aware that we are doing a lot more than just making a movie and entertaining people and inspiring them through a true story of hope."
The film begins with Russ Shepherd (Ben Schnetzer), a new college graduate from the Southern part of the country coming to Kugluktuk to teach history and math at the local high school. Thinking this was a job to gain experience in order to head to bigger and better opportunities, Russ quickly discovers that his worldview and perspective provides an unrealistic dream to the native Inuks whose only hope is to survive the harsh and secluded life in the Arctic, often succumbing to the appeals of alcohol. He struggles to keep his students in the classroom, many of whom drop out when they lose interest or find it too challenging. A Lacrosse star at his former school, Russ gets the inspiration to begin a Lacrosse team among the students along with fellow teacher Mike (Will Sasso). The shy and intelligent Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) is the first student to join the team as team manager. At first his efforts are amusing to the people of the village but later scorned by the elders and the Principal of the school, Janace, played by Tantoo Cardinal (Legends of the Falls, Dances with Wolves). She tells Russ, “Don’t add to the long line of promises made to the Inuit not kept.”
Slowly the youth come out to see what he is up to. Russ tells them that they must attend school in order to play lacrosse, so they all start to show up to class. Zach is the leader, yet his family is starving and so he needs to hunt simply to survive and often misses practices and class. But, he wants to be part of the team and they start to come together using their energies productively and for a common goal. He recruits Kyle (Booboo Stewart) to join the team and they train hard running sprints across the tundra. Russ enters the team into a tournament in Toronto so they come up with the name, Grizzlies. Enduring tragedy, Russ encourages them, “Get on the plane and play with the sorrow you have — that’s your victory!” The team loses all their games in Toronto, but they discover that it’s not about the goals but to have fun as a team. Never having left the Arctic, many of them are overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan city of Toronto. They return home to their village as superstars and find new life and a new hope.
This film is unique among sports dramas. If there is a comparison it would be with Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsledders going to the Olympics. Rarely are there stories about the Native Americans of the Arctic. One of the film’s producers, Stacey Aglok MacDonald, an alumnus of the high school in Kugluktuk before the team was formed, returned to the school as a substitute teacher while the team was in action, and said that the psychological demeanor of the students was radically improved. This inspiring drama deals with difficult teen issues of abuse, drugs and alcohol, and teen suicide, and so is rated R for intense issues and language, but it touches on these issues with honesty and integrity. It is a film that ultimately builds up and makes you want to shout out, “YESSS!” Perhaps now more than ever a film like this can bring us together as community and give us focus on a common goal — the joy of living!
Copyright 2020 Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP
Images: © 2018 Catherine Simmonds at Elevation Pictures. All rights reserved.
Originally published on bemediamindful.org.
About the Author
Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP is a Daughter of St Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, CA. She is a Media Literacy Education Specialist, theologian, international speaker, film reviewer, and blogger for BeMediaMindful.org. Her book A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is a theology of popular culture published by Wipf & Stock Publishing.