As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019
Based on a true story, this film details the efforts of white Canadian teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) to inspire his Inuit students in the small Arctic town of Kugluktuk through forming a lacrosse team.
The overall narrative structure of the screenplay, co-written by Hollywood veteran Graham Yost (Speed), is similar to that of the standard inspirational sports film, with Sheppard initially encountering opposition to his idea from his students and the wider Inuit community, yet managing to win them over and working through a series of setbacks to get the team to play at a tournament in Toronto.
Similarly, de Pencier makes heavy use of the visual iconography of the genre, with training montages bearing more than a passing resemblance to countless similar sequences in films ranging from Rocky to Cool Runnings. Also, whilst the veracity of this story cannot be disputed, it can be argued that the film’s use of a “white saviour” narrative, with Sheppard being the main driving force of inspiration for his students, makes it a more commercial and palatable method of portraying the Inuit community for mainstream audiences.
However, the depiction of the problems within the Inuit community through the individual issues the students themselves face, as well as the performances from the cast, is where de Pencier and Yost elevate the material beyond the cliches of its genre. From homelessness to conflicts with cultural tradition to suicide, the concerns facing Sheppard’s students are depicted in realistic ways that highlight the difficulties of their circumstances in a detailed manner unlike many other examples of the “inspirational sports” genre. The handling of the high suicide rates amongst the Inuit community is particularly notable, with the film opening on the quietly eerie suicide of a young man and featuring another later in the third act.
Schnetzer convinces in the role of Sheppard through effectively conveying the teacher’s initial befuddlement with Inuit culture, as well as his passion in trying to improve the lives of the teenagers he is responsible for. Whilst the role may seem like a stock “inspirational teacher” archetype, Schnetzer never makes his character seem like a simple cliche through his performance. Comedian Will Sasso also provides ample support in the small role of Mike, a fellow white Canadian who helps Sheppard through the initial hurdles of integrating into the local community.
However, it is the group of young Inuit actors portraying the Grizzlies themselves that make the best impression. Despite many of them having no previous acting experience, they provide the film’s best performances in their portrayal of their individual character’s personalities, struggles and hopes. In particular, newcomers Emerald MacDonald and Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan impress in their respective roles of aspiring academic student Miranda and talented hunter Adam.
Whilst The Grizzlies could be seen as somewhat cliched as a result of its use of tried and tested narrative tropes, its handling of the serious issues affecting its Inuit characters and the strength of the performances help the film to overcome these shortcomings.