The Grizzlies

The Grizzlies is one of those films you go into expecting to be not all that good.

You think you’ll like it, you’ll appreciate, and you’ll even admire it, but you don’t really think it will be all that well made.

Instead you just hope that the film’s earnestness and authenticity will make up for deficiencies in the production, and that its earnestness wont cross over too quickly into hokey melodrama, allowing you to pass the time without too much difficulty.

(Or at least that’s how I would have felt about it, if it hadn’t come with a very strong recommendation from a friend.)

But the truth is that for the most part, The Grizzlies escapes the troublesome hiccups that many well-meaning but smaller-scale productions face, delivering instead an emotionally compelling and genuinely heartfelt real-life drama which is deeply emotional and legitimately inspirational.

Ben Schnetzer plays Russ Sheppard, a young teacher who in order to pay off his debts takes his first job in the remote community of Kugluktuk, far in the north of Canada. There he discovers not only a place that is far off any beaten track that he’s familiar with, but a town that is struggling with epidemic-level amounts of suicide, especially amongst the local youth. Overwhelmed, he turns to the thing he knows, which happens to be the sport of lacrosse, as a way to attempt to engage with the young people.

From this we get some of the story-beats that one would expect–apathy from the students, objections from the school administration, cultural clashes with the community–but all mixed together in a way that’s fresh and honest. Even thought Russ is at the center of everything, the film’s story really focuses on about five of the students that he engages with:

• Zach (Paul Nutarariaq) – the popular kid who punches Russ the first time they meet, who’s parents are criminally neglectful, leaving Zack to care for his younger brother more-or-less on his own

• Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) – an easy-going boy who has dropped out of school because it seems irrelevant to the highly traditional way-of-life that is espoused by his grandparents

• Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) – the straight A student who becomes the team’s manager, whose life outside of her home is disrepected and unappreciated by her family

• Kyle (Booboo Stewart) – the troubled boy who lives right next to Russ, and struggles to respond to an alcholic and abusive father

• Spring (Anna Lambe) – the young woman and talented artist whose abusive boyfriend committed suicide after she left him

These characters are all archetypes who do not just populate the movie but serve as representatives for their community (and for communities like it). But they each go beyond this and become people that we legitimately care about and connect with. When we’re in their lives, the movie feels the most rich and meaningful. Director Miranda de Pencier does an excellent balancing the attention on each of them, as well as Russ Sheppard, so none of the stories feel overplayed.

Moments which threaten to be cliched are dealt with with restraint–notably a small subplot about the other job that Russ really wanted. Other bits which could be steeped in melodrama are instead handled with honesty and authenticity, and become legitimately inspiring. One of the strongest moments comes after another devastating suicide hits the community–Russ Sheppard is on the brink of giving up until he sees the surviving members of the team sitting together in the gym, talking about what happened, and processing their feelings. It’s a great callback to an earlier moment in the film when the kids refused to talk about their feelings at losing a classmate, because their seemed to be no point.

There are a couple of bits of acting here and there that I wasn’t completely convinced by, but for the most part I was fully drawn in by the restrained performances of the young cast. I’m not familiar with any of them, but it turns out that my daughters are because the actor who plays Kyle, Booboo Stewart, also plays the son of Jafar in Disney’s The Descendants series (and is apparently also in Twilight, which I have not seen, and X-Men Days of Future Past, which I have). He’s excellent in The Grizzlies, but also suitably restrained, delivering a performance which, like all the others, is not showy at all, and has the same appropriately unpolished tone as the rest of the film.

There are a couple of ways that the film is not perfect. There are some plot points that swerve into place very dramatically without the film really finding the time to set them up properly–like the town meeting which could be the answer to the team’s money problems. And there are a few other moments that are more predictable than one would like–like when certain people show up at that town meeting to say their peace.

But these are nit-picks. This is a great movie about some stuff that really happened in a real place. It was the labor of years of work and investment–a bit of extra reading reveals quite an extensive and detailed process that went into developing the film, working alongside many people who were really impacted by the events it portrays. Watching it, I felt a bit privileged to have been invited in to share the story with them for those couple of hours.

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