Film review: The Grizzlies

Miranda de Pencier's debut feature offers and intimate and authentic visit to Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

Shane Mahood (courtesy of Mongrel Media)
The opening scene of The Grizzlies is heartwrenching: The transition from hearing the crack of a shotgun reverberate off the wide-open, snow-covered land on-screen to a young white man excitedly remarking at the lack of trees is jarring. Every single shot in Miranda de Pencier’s feature film debut is equally as powerful. It’s based on the true story of the Kugluktuk Grizzlies, a group of Inuit high school students who form the in-house lacrosse league in Kugluktuk, NU, a community with staggeringly high suicide rates.

Following the story of Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), the white, lacrosse-loving teacher from the south, the film is an intimate visit to a fly-in community grappling with losing community members and living in the rippling effects of colonialism. The entire movie is shot in Nunavut and the majority of cast is Indigenous; it shows the town in its truest self and inside the real homes and lives of Inuit. Many cast and crew including producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald, from Kugluktuk, have first-hand experience with the themes of the film. It mirrors the experiences of many Inuit youth across the north. de Pencier won the 2018 Directors Guild of Canada for directorial achievement of a feature.

Sheppard struggles to understand the Inuit’s prioritization of hunting and being on the land over getting an education and "getting out." He doesn’t understand the way that intergenerational trauma showed up in the youth as drinking, smoking and not going to school. He introduces Canada’s national sport to his students to give them something better to do than their current "nightlife" and once they join, he eventually convinces them to quit drinking and smoking with the promise of competing at nationals in Toronto .

But Sheppard isn’t your white saviour—he’s wrong again and again. He dances the line between giving the youth lacrosse as an outlet and safe space to help each other grow and compounding their individual problems. Sports can't fix systemic struggles, as the brilliant and resilient Inuit youth in de Pencier's film show us.

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