' ' Cinema Romantico: The Grizzlies

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

The Grizzlies

“The Grizzlies” begins with a young Intuit man, living in the small arctic community of Kugluktuk, sitting down in the middle of nowhere and killing himself. If it seems out of step with a movie billed as as an inspirational sports drama, it is a crucial evocation of the film’s stakes, underlined in the ensuing title card stressing the area’s high suicide rate and marking this prologue as a harsh fact of life. This grim way of living is evoked in a distinct sense of desolate place and finely honed observations of living in such a remote community. Each time Russ Shepherd (Ben Schnetzer), the ignorant new white guy in town, knocks on a door, he is incredulously reminded knocking is not required here, a recurring bit of comedy manifested as something more, suggesting how this Intuit community’s struggle is not hidden away but out in the open, if only anyone was willing to go through that door and look. And even if sometimes the screenplay by Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost falls prey to the sort of unworldliness it otherwise seeks to subvert, “The Grizzlies” still has enough wordliness to succeed.

Russ is a young Canadian, dispatched to Kugluktuk to settle the remainder of his community service by working as a teacher. He doesn’t speak the language and knows nothing about the culture, dismissed up front by Janace (Tantoo Cardinal), the school principal and a community leader, as merely being there for his own selfish rewards. Russ will have to change, of course, and so he does, that lacrosse stick he hangs on his otherwise barren wall in an early scene the obvious key to unlocking his and the town’s true self. If this means “The Grizzlies” flirts with White Savior territory, the screenplay it evades this archetype by leaning into Ben’s obliviousness. Even as he forms an unlikely lacrosse team of disinterested students to give them focus, there remains a distinct boorishness in his insistence that he knows how to transform their lives with hardly even a passing recognition of their background, their customs, their hardships. And Schnetzer admirably plays straight to this idea throughout, still emitting an indignant know-it-all kind of air even after he’s won them over, lending credence to the predictable second act turn when he thinks about fleeing, a scared white dude who can’t hack it. And the Intuit actors opposite him, many of whom have few, if any, acting credits are worthy opposition, seeing right through him even as they literally look past him.

Yet, if “The Grizzlies” takes care to demonstrate the myopia of a white man insisting he has the remedy to an issue for which he manifestly lacks true understanding, it’s odd how the formation of the lacrosse team still tends to run roughshod over crucial subplots meant to embody indigenous beliefs. True, director Miranda de Pencier ensures the Intuit residents are rendered with humanity, though sometimes these moments can be distilled down to frustrating clichés, like a big speech. But if the family of Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) insists he eshew the white man’s world and Janace admonishes Russ for not seeing the forest for the trees in his damn the torpedoes approach and fervent belief that getting out of Kugluktuk is what matters most, these storylines are not so much thoughtful portrayals of Intuit attitudes as antagonistic hurdles that need to be crossed in the name of forming the team, reminiscent of the subplot in this year’s “The Way Back” in which one father’s belief that basketball is not the only way out is just a pesky false crisis.

That’s not to say the lacrosse, how ever true to life it may or may not be, is without merit. In trying to convince the Intuit youth to play, Russ gives a brief history of the game, citing it not simply as Canada’s true national sport, as opposed to hockey, but one first played by First Nations people. That sets it apart from the similarly themed “McFarland U.S.A.” (2015) where a group of Latino kids were inherently talented runners without necessarily realizing it. The Grizzlies do not have any particular natural talent but in playing lacrosse reconnect with who they are anyway, a truly moving idea that de Pencier might have been wise to accentuate even further. As it is, it’s enough, and despite the expected bundle of montages and game action, the somewhat platitudinous dramatic conclusion in which the team travels to the big city comes off simply by how it finishes, proving that in the case of The Grizzlies, it really is more than a game.

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