Synopsis: New teacher helps Inuit high schoolers in Nunavut, Canada form a lacrosse team.
The Grizzlies def sounds like a movie I would watch, whether it was a documentary (probably about a mama bear teaching Nature’s ways to her cub) or an animated flick (probably about a cub learning Nature’s way from mama bear). And in both movies there would be a period when mama & cub are separated. In the docu, cub is in danger from a big male grizzly who turns cubs into lunch. In the animated one, the cub is in danger from a wrathful spirit who turns cubs into toadstools.
It turns out that this The Grizzlies (directed by Miranda de Pencier) is based on a true story about–Bears?! No, lacrosse. But no bears. Although there is the danger that a polar bear could disrupt lacrosse practice with some mauling. This is more likely than a grizzly mauling team members, as their numbers are fewer in Nunavut. In any event, the kids call their team the Grizzlies for the fierce way in which the bears compete in team sports.
The film’s story begins in 2004 when a young white teacher, Russ (Ben Schnetzer) from southern Canada (“Southern” ha ha, it’s still freezing) arrives in Nunavut to teach in exchange for tuition forgiveness. Nunavut, home to over 30,000 mostly Inuit people, is a semi-autonomous Canadian territory that stretches to the Arctic Circle. If it were its own nation, it would have the world’s highest suicide rate. So… this sounds like a problem that even a white savior will have trouble solving.
The small town that Russ has been placed in is Kugluktuk (pop. 1,400). He’s eager to teach the high school kids. But he makes a poor initial impression on the kids by mangling the pronunciation of their surnames when he takes attendance. (Calling to mind the great Key & Peele substitute teacher sketch.)
Motivation is a problem for a number of the students as they deal with domestic violence, substance abuse and food insecurity. The principal, Janace (Tantoo Cardinal) tells Russ that he should be glad that the kids show up at all considering all they have to contend with. The kids laugh at Russ, swear in class and even punch him in the face. Even worse, they don’t complete their homework.
Russ will not be dissuaded! Although it does look like he considers catching the next southward flight when he buys a few snacks and sundry items at the convenience store and it costs $300 instead of the $30 it would come to in Toronto. When not at the school, Russ runs through town carrying a lacrosse stick —we get it Russ, you were a jock in college, #notimpressed. After nightfall, which could be 1pm as far as I know, Russ tromps through town where he encounters his students getting drunk and high. They are in good spirits, yet also disrespectful. I was afraid for Russ because bold bears do venture into town to look for food and they would not be afraid to attack Russ–even if he was carrying his trusty lacrosse stick. The youngsters have less to worry about as their stink of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and hooch are likely to keep the bears at bay.
According to Russ, all of life’s problems can be solved by lacrosse, so he asks the principal for permission to start a lacrosse team. She sighs wearily at Russ’ plan to stop teen suicide through lacrosse; but then says sure, whatever. Russ eagerly passes out recruiting fliers to students who promptly toss them.
Russ has one good student, Miranda (Emerald MacDonald). She is very shy but observant. She tells her teacher that he needs to get two influential guys, Adam and Zach, to join up and the rest will follow.
Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) doesn’t go to school because he needs to help his grandparents survive. Also possibly because he looks to be about thirty years old. Russ shows up at his family tent and waits while Adam finishes speaking with his grandparents. Adam explains that he was listening to a story and that elders often answer questions with a story…this seems confusing to me. Anyway, after about ten seconds the grandpa announces: Enough conversation. Lol, you run a tight ship, grandpa. I was glad that Adam had a chance for some recreation and that the elders would have a new story: The Family-Time Interrupting White Man.
Zach (Paul Nutarariaq) occasionally goes to school, but I bet Russ wishes he wouldn’t because Zach: a) insults him in the native language (Inuktitut), b) punches him on his way out of class ,and c) doesn’t do his homework. I shook My head at Zach’s antisocial behavior, but then I saw another side of him when he broke into a store. Huh? you may wonder. It was altruistic; he was only stealing junk food to feed his younger brother since their parents are always passed out.
Russ does manage to bribe some kids into playing lacrosse, and they actually begin to enjoy the game. I found the practices themselves dull, but I had to keep a worried eye out for the kids whose suffering was highlighted. For example, Kyle (Booboo Stewart) who, along with his mother, are regularly abused by his father, a rage-aholic alcoholic. But the kids say he runs like the caribou, so he is getting a self esteem boost. Spring (Anna Lambe), the prettiest girl in town, breaks out of her girlfriend role and joins the team. And Miranda! Her hateful sister slaps the s***out of her because she is a bitter bee-yatch. Also! Maggie, a dog that Russ has taken in after her person committed suicide, takes pride of place on the team when she outruns all of the kids at practice.
But Russ’ work is not over. He wants to bring the Grizzlies to compete at a tournament in Toronto. Good idea Russ, all of the local pride the kids have been building will evaporate when they see the Big City and the dominance of the white man’ culture. The principal tells Russ that they have no money for such a trip in their poor community. I’ll find a way, says Russ. But if they don’t Russ — unlike the kids– has an easy way out. Because Russ may have the opportunity to teach in balmy Halifax, Nova Scotia. But he wouldn’t really desert these vulnerable youth, would he? Of course he would! The last scene shows Russ teaching at a fancy prep school and the deserted lacrosse field taken over by bears. Kidding! You’ll have to see for yourself how Russ and the kids fare. Although I would leave my job if I got punched. Or had to coach lacrosse.
P.S. A note on terminology… In Canada, the indigenous inhabitants are called Aboriginal People or First Peoples. First Nations (formerly “Indians”) include members of eastern tribes such as Ojibway, Algonquin, Cree & Dene. Inuit (formerly “Eskimo”) are culturally distinct from other tribal peoples of Canada.
P.P.S. For information on current efforts to address mental health needs in Nunavut, click here. Also, journalist Helen Epstein visited Nunavut in 2019 and wrote a very moving and edifying article on the Inuit: “The Highest Suicide Rate in the World.” Trigger Warning: Please be advised that interviewees recount loss of loved ones from suicide.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: “Inspirational” sports stories aren’t my thing, but the look into an Inuit community is worthwhile. And the young actors, all of Native Americas heritage, acquit themselves well, with an especially strong performance by Paul Nutarariaq as Zach. The guy who plays Russ is okay too 😉
Humor Highlight: The Inuit man who owns Russ when the latter asks: How long have you lived around here? He turns to him and calmly answers: About 6,000 years. << Full Disclosure: I don’t actually hate Russ or the actor who plays him. There’s just no fresh way to play the coach-who-makes-a-difference.>>