Arriving in Kugluktuk, Nunavut — a remote settlement in Canada’s Arctic North — to teach History, recent graduate Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) thinks he knows it all. However, his class is poorly attended, his pupils are disaffected and his lessons fall on deaf ears. Hoping to tackle the triple treat of depression, alcoholism and suicide by engendering some healthy competition and galvanising the whole community, Russ attempts to establish a local lacrosse team. Firstly, however, he needs to find players — something student Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) assures him won’t be possible until he convinces classmates Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) and Zack (Paul Nutarariaq) to play.
So, another white saviour narrative told from the perspective of an inspirational teacher then? It’s hard, even having seen the movie, to write a synopsis that doesn’t read like a troublesome cliche. Based on a true story, no less — the de facto defense of movies as diverse as The Blind Side and Cool Runnings — this might seem like any other underdog sports story, only this time centering on lacrosse instead of football or bobsleigh. However, while on paper The Grizzlies might seem like a prime example of the trope it is in fact nothing of the sort. Sheppard’s hubris is shortlived, as it was in real life, while behind the camera Miranda de Pencier and screenwriters Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost are well aware that the issues their film deals with can’t be neatly resolved in a hundred and forty two minutes; that they might never be.
Having starred as gay activist Mark Ashton in Pride and played a persecuted Jew in The Book Thief, by way of a Greek Etonian and powerful mage, Schnetzer has quickly proven himself to be one of the most versatile actors of his generation — frequently earning praise as the best part of each film he’s in. He’s perfectly cast as Sheppard, entirely credible in his Canadian inflections and convincingly overcome in his role as a student teacher, with as much to learn as to instill. Impressively, however, he has stiff competition from his supporting cast, many of whom have never acted before. With many of the roles being portrayed by Inuit actors, there is a realness, a rawness and an authority to the characters that goes beyond mere performance, however accomplished. Cinema, like history, is comprised of stories, and there’s a real sense that Sheppard’s struggles aren’t the only ones to which The Grizzlies is attempting to do justice.
This tangible authenticity isn’t simply achieved through casting, however, with de Pencier choosing to film on location in Nunavut, feature the local dialect and sample traditional indigenous music as well as the work of contemporary Inuit musicians — resulting in unforgettable imagery, dynamic dialogue and a strikingly original soundtrack. In fact, much as the film’s protagonist has to overcome his ignorance and find acceptance among the local people so did its director. Le Pencier made multiple trips to the area, immersed herself in the culture and sought to enact a positive change of her own by establishing a mentorship program. Indeed, it could be a white saviour meta-narrative all of its own, and ultimately serves to underline the problem inherent in dismissing any story that centres on an outsider. The important thing is that these stories are told, that voices are heard and lessons are learned. The respectful storyteller, like Schnetzer’s history teacher, might colour the narrative but they know they should never control it.
As rousing as The Grizzlies undoubtedly is, it doesn’t underestimate the hardships that remain. Whether or not an enthusiastic teacher and his love of lacrosse can give his students another reason to live, it doesn’t make life itself any easier. But then it isn’t looking to save; only to inspire. Not since Next Goal Wins, Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s documentary about American Samoa’s underdog football team, has a victory felt so hard-won. And make no mistake: The Grizzlies is a triumph.