The film opens with the stunning wintry landscape of the Arctic North. A good-looking indigenous teen is seen with his dog. He shoos the dog away and points the barrel the rifle that he is carrying at the base of his mouth. The shots fired. The words on the screen then informs the audience that in 2004, Nunavut has the highest suicide rate in North America. The film itself contains three youth suicides.
Director Miranda de Pencier proves in this beginning sequence she knows how to engage her audience. The result is an engaging film based on a true story that serves as a feel-good night out at the movies.
THE GRIZZLIES (the name of the school’s lacrosse team) is an inspirational drama about a group of Inuit students in the Arctic where, in 2004, suicide rates were the highest in North America. The main protagonist is rookie teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer). He is shown naive as hell, arriving in the small Nunavut town of Kugluktuk, totally culturally unaware of the Inuit ways. The students are also suspicious of him. Russ does not give up. But, upon embracing the sport of lacrosse, the teens evoke change in the teacher, themselves and the community. The film feels like TO SIR WITH LOVE with the lacrosse sport set in the Arctic instead of the United Kingdom.
The story includes problems faced in general by indigenous youth. The drinking, drug taking and physical abuse are all topics that are included in the story.
The film is true to its indigenous roots. Over 600 kids from the Arctic auditioned for roles, including two 2019 CSA nominees (lead actor Paul Nutarariaq and supporting actress Anna Lambe) and up-and-comer Emerald MacDonald, all of whom play students. The actors have experienced many of the same challenges as their characters, bringing a level of authenticity and sensitivity to the screen. A good point to admire is the fact that one third of the film’s crew is Inuit.
Tantoo Cardinal plays Janice the beleaguered school principal, with all the malice she can hold. “The students might not show up in class as they might have other priorities. We try to accommodate them as far as we can” “I will whip them into shape,” says the new teacher to which her reply is: “You don’t have to talk up to me, just do your job. The other local non actors also do a fine job especially the young actress playing a student, Miranda.
The film features original music by Indigenous hip hop artists, including 2019 CSA winners Dan General (DJ Shub), Thomas Lambe (666God), Adam Tanuyak (Hyper-T) for their song “Trials”.
Though critics might sneer at the film trying so hard at pushing the right buttons to be a feel-good movie, THE GRIZZLIES works well as a feel good film. Unsurprisingly, it picked up audience awards at Calgary 2018 and Palm Springs 2019. De Pencier also won the 2018 DGC award for directorial achievement of a feature.