'The Grizzlies': Film Review | Palm Springs 2019

Courtesy of Palm Springs Film Festival
Icy setting invigorates a warmhearted winner.

Oscar winner Frank Marshall helped to produce this drama based on the true story of a ragtag group of lacrosse players from a remote village in the Arctic.

Inspirational sports stories are nothing new, but a fresh milieu and a vivid cast of characters can revitalize any genre, and The Grizzlies — an excellent Canadian film directed by Miranda de Pencier — stands out as a stirring and compelling variation on a popular theme. The pic is based on a true story of a lacrosse team from the northernmost reaches of Canada, and most of the actors are Inuit. After a couple of festival showings where it proved to be an audience favorite, the film is seeking U.S. distribution and definitely deserves a showcase.

The Grizzlies begins arrestingly, with a scene of a young Inuit man going to a remote spot and shooting himself. We then cut to the arrival of Russ Shepherd (Ben Schnetzer), a teacher sent to this outpost because his options are almost as limited as those of the young people who live in the wintry village. He finds a completely unmotivated group of students, but his own naivete leads him to believe that he can make a difference in their lives.

Although the pic initially threatens to become one more tale of a white savior rescuing native people from their worst impulses, it turns out that Russ has more to learn from his students and others in his community than they do from him. He tries to motivate them by getting them interested in playing lacrosse, which he insists is more of a Canadian national sport than hockey. The resistance he faces is believable, and in the end, he comes to appreciate the obstacles facing all the town residents. They are the ones who ultimately take charge and achieve a victory on their terms rather than his.

Performances help to enliven the movie. Schnetzer, an engaging actor who has had prominent roles in such films as The Book Thief and the gay British drama Pride, resists the temptation to idealize the character. Russ comes across as brash and determined, but also blind to the real challenges in the lives of the people he wants to inspire. Russ can actually be more than a little dense, but his upbeat spirit keeps us on his side.

De Pencier did a superb job finding fine actors, including several native to the region, to portray the young students and townspeople. Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan, Paul Nutarariaq and Booboo Stewart all register strongly as young men who refuse to be bullied. The director and screenwriters Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost also created substantial roles for actresses. Emerald MacDonald as the smartest student in the class makes a particularly strong impression, and Tantoo Cardinal (who played a major role in Dances with Wolves in 1990) is also memorable as the school principal who protests Russ’ naivete and is only gradually and believably won over to his cause. Several other characters speak their native language and cement the sense of authenticity.

The director and cinematographer Jim Denault expertly convey the bleak beauty of the Arctic landscape. The filmmakers wisely chose to shoot on harsh real locations, and they add immeasurably to the movie’s portrayal of the impediments to these young men’s survival.  Veterans Frank Marshall and Jake Steinfeld acted as executive producers and clearly played an important role in backing this story. It turns out to be bracingly unsentimental and transcendently moving at the same time.

Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Emerald MacDonald, Tantoo Cardinal, Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan, Paul Nutarariaq, Will Sasso, Booboo Stewart
Director: Miranda de Pencier
Screenwriters: Moira Walley-Beckett, Graham Yost
Producers: Althea Arnaquq-Baril, Damon D’Oliveira, Zanne Devine, Miranda de Pencier, Stacey Aglok MacDonald
Executive producers: Frank Marshall, Jake Steinfeld
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Zazu Myers
Costume designer: Lea Carlson
Editors: Michele Conroy, Ronald Sanders, James Vandewater
Music: Garth Stevenson
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

 

104 minutes