A true-life story of how sport unites a group of disenfranchised teens in northern Canada, too often The Grizzlies feels like Hollywood schmaltz
Prefacing itself with the sobering truth that Nunavut, the most northern territory of Canada, has the highest suicide rate in North America, Miranda de Pencier’s debut feature The Grizzlies is an uplifting but cloying portrait of youth in a remote community ravaged by alcoholism and domestic abuse. Opening mid-flight, Ben Schnetzer’s Russ – a naïve white teacher transferring from the South – enquires how long his fellow passenger has lived in Nunavut. “6000 years,” the elderly Native quips back. It’s a tone the film sticks to.
Understandably, the students are at first reluctant to involve themselves in Russ’s program – their inescapable, poverty-stricken surroundings are, after all, moulded by the white man. However, the teacher finally gets them onside through his love of lacrosse, presenting it as an alternative to their destructive lifestyles.
De Pencier’s attentive approach – offering cultural support to the cast in a week-long audition process – is apparent. As Anna Lambe, who plays Spring, rightly commented at the Q&A following The Grizzlies' EIFF premiere, the film's message is of a community helping itself. De Pencier’s trust in her cast of inexperienced but knowledgeable unknowns pays off too. The performance of Paul Nutarariaq as Zach, a tough but vulnerable teen forced to hunt for his family’s food while his parents get high, is layered and startlingly honest. So compelling are the young performers that the movie deviates from telling Russ’s story, as was originally planned, and as a result it never feels tokenistic.
But good intentions only take the movie so far. While the narrative fits together nicely, its beats too frequently recall Hollywood string-pulling rather than reality, heightening injustices with a false poetic gloss. As a feel-good film, The Grizzlies will work for many, but its frustrating tendency to stray into formulaic tone and plotting lessens its impact and dilutes its social commentary, stopping it from ever fully succeeding.
The Grizzlies had its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival
Fin Stockting is a student at University of Glasgow and part of Edinburgh International Film Festival's Student Critics Programme. For more on EIFF's Student Critics Programme, click here
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