I would have considered it entirely likely that The Grizzlies was to be yet another inspirational "rah-rah" film with your typical white savior swooping in and lifting up those poor indigenous peoples.
The first time I spied Ben Schnetzer as Russ, I most certainly expected it.
I didn't get it.
Don't get me wrong. The Grizzlies is most certainly an inspirational film, yet it's a hard-earned inspiration wonderfully crafted by first-time feature director Miranda de Pencier. De Pencier is a native Canadian who directs from an uncommon sensitivity toward First Peoples and an understanding of their pain and loss of identity. She gets it and The Grizzlies is better for it. The Grizzlies is also better for the fact that de Pencier fills her film to the brim with a largely Inuit cast of non-actors who don't need to be actors to tell the story they're bringing to life here.
They wear this story and it's a beautiful thing to watch.
Schnetzer, while being impossibly good looking, has proven himself to be a mighty fine and extraordinarily immersive actor in such films as The Book Thief, Snowden, and Pride. He disappears inside his roles with such precise, disciplined technique that you'd be hard-pressed to remember his name unless you're truly following him as an actor. It's arguable that he's less immersive here as Russ, a Canadian teacher sent to remote Kugluktuk, Nunavut to put in required community service hours before he snags a desired posh gig at a prep school. While Schnetzer may be less immersive, he matches his counterparts beat for beat. He gives a terrific performance here, yet his finest performance may very well be ensuring that the rest of this ensemble also shines.
This ensemble does shine. It's not likely that names like BooBoo Stewart, Anna Lambe, and Emerald MacDonald will ever be household names, yet in a myriad of ways they are the heart and soul of the story that unfolds in The Grizzlies. This is a film that could have gone wrong in so many ways, yet in so many ways it goes right.
It isn't long into The Grizzlies that we become acutely aware of the challenges facing this village. Teen suicide, domestic abuse, and alcoholism are seemingly daily companions, while hope at times seems constantly out of reach. Russ is not a savior, though certainly he is a catalyst for the hope to be found as he finds his footing as a teacher and introduces these young people to what could best be described as the healing powers of lacrosse.
In some ways, I suppose, you could say that The Grizzlies, which is based upon a true story, unfolds predictably as we work through the expected newbie teacher issues, cultural lessons, unexpected tragedy, and expected team-building that seem to all come from these types of inspirational sports stories. However, it's obvious that there's more going on than sports here and it's undeniable that the greatest victories are the reclaiming of strength, identity, and a purposeful life.
Garth Stevenson's original score for the film is exceptional, while Jim Denault's lensing captures both the despair and the beauty at times simultaneously. De Pencier, in the end, quite beautifully brings to life the script by Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost and beautifully weaves together authentic culture and genuine inspiration.
Emotionally honest and immensely heartfelt, The Grizzlies is currently available in digital and on VOD via indie distributor Hammond Entertainment.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic