The Grizzlies is an incredible Canadian movie and based on a true story about a group of indigenous students who form a lacrosse team in northern Canada (Kugluktuk, which is at the northwestern mainland tip of Nunavut and had the highest youth suicide rate when the story took place in 2004) and try to compete in the national championships in Toronto. It confronts enduring issues in Canadian indigenous communities including youth suicide, domestic violence, alcoholism, and intergenerational trauma. I think the film is a huge triumph for raising awareness and supporting the voices of these people and communities. It’s not an easy watch (the opening scene is a gut punch), but it is a rewarding and enlightening one that ends on a hopeful note.
The narration predominantly focuses on newcomer Russ Sheppard, a very naïve and nearly insufferably arrogant white teacher from the south who arrives in town to teach the kids, although the focus is also upon the students in the small town as they live their lives. I didn’t care much for Sheppard (honestly, wouldn’t you at least try to learn a few Inuktitut phrases if you were teaching in Nunavut??), although I suppose he gets better as the film progresses, and he is responsible for starting the lacrosse team that gets the youth engaged. I think Russ is very representative of many white people in Canada (even myself, to some extent) who are woefully unaware of the culture differences and traumatic experiences these indigenous communities have been through. There’s also the issue that Russ may or may not be a “white saviour” in the film – certainly it may seem that way as a white man coming to “save” the indigenous children from traumatizing circumstances, but I think the film is more interested in the indigenous youth and their stories, and even though the director is white, she collaborated extensively with indigenous communities for the film and actively engaged with them because their approval is important. And there is great sincerity and sensitivity to these children’s stories – the filmmaker (Miranda de Pencier) ensures that each of their voices is heard and their lives are thoughtfully portrayed.
For me, the colourful cast of students really make the film: Kyle (Booboo Stewart), who runs away from home after constant abuse from his father, who was in turn a victim of the residential schools; Spring (Anna Lambe), whose seemingly charming relationship with her boyfriend actually leads to abuse; Miranda (Emerald Macdonald), the excellent student who is constantly tormented at home; Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan), who has dropped out of school to hunt for his elderly grandparents; and Zach (Paul Nutarariaq), possibly my favourite character, whose tough demeanour masks deep sympathy and compassion, and has to steal from the local Co-op to support him and his little brother. The sense of responsibilities and way of living are much different in Kugluktuk – many of the children don’t go to school so that they can hunt for their families or care for their siblings or just sheer indifference to the system, which is unfortunate but understandable given the treatment of Inuit children in the nightmarish residential schools. In the style of Angry Inuk (that film’s director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril also produces this film), it explores this type of lifestyle and culture to provide a greater understanding and asks important questions. I was also pleased to see Tantoo Cardinal, who is always excellent, in a very powerful supporting role as one of the school administrators who often confronts Russ about his bullshit.
I think that most sports drama films follow a familiar arc or formula (think Rocky, The Mighty Ducks, or even my beloved Slap Shot), and while The Grizzlies (the name of the school’s lacrosse team, by the way) does follow some of these themes, its confrontation and grappling with complex themes of youth suicide and domestic violence elevate it above its contemporaries. Despite the enduring hardships that many indigenous people face, they are resilient and some of the strongest people I personally know, and I will continue to work hard to reconcile and decolonize as much as I can (I’m also still hoping to organize book drives to send to schools up in northern Ontario when I have more experience and resources available). At surface level, The Grizzlies may seem like a straightforward sports drama, but it is so much more – it is a story that is very passionate and unforgettable and eye-opening and I will never forget some of its haunting images. But it is also a story of hope, of community, of solidarity, of resistance, of resilience, and it is one that inspires me. I was extremely moved by this film and yes, I did cry uncontrollably when some of the children committed suicide, and I would say without a doubt that this is the best and most powerful film that I’ve watched this year. Like Tanya Talaga’s essential Seven Fallen Feathers, this movie really opened my eyes. I hope everyone has the opportunity to watch it.