Monday, 1 October 2018

The Grizzlies (2018 EIFF 1)

You can tell my life is way too busy when an entire month goes by without a film review. October will probably be just as busy, but look for one review every day for most of the month because I’m back at the Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF).

The EIFF gets off to its best start ever (for me) in 2018, with an opening film that received a standing ovation (very rare at the EIFF). The Grizzlies, directed by Miranda de Pencier (who is Canadian) and written by Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost, was filmed in Canada’s far far north: Kugluktuk, on the Arctic coast of Nunavut. Based on a true story, The Grizzlies shows what happened some 15-20 years ago when a naive young high school teacher came into this small community, which is suffering from teenage suicides and far too much drugs and alcohol. 

Russ Sheppard (played by Ben Schnetzer) has no idea what he’s getting into, and when one of his students slugs him during his first class, and almost all the rest walk out, he could be forgiven for hopping on the next plane. But instead he endures and finds a way to get some of his students excited about life again by introducing them to lacrosse and offering them a chance to maybe fly to Toronto to play in a national tournament. But this turns out to be an incredibly challenging dream, with Shepparrd facing opposition not only from parents but from the town council (led by Janace, who is played by Tantoo Cardinal). Fortunately, Sheppard gets support from some enterprising students (like Miranda, played by Emerald MacDonald) and a colleague friend (Mike, played by Will Sasso).

The Grizzlies was originally supposed to focus more on Sheppard’s experiences in Kugluktuk, but de Pencier wisely chose to focus her attention on the students and townspeople of Kugluktuk instead. Even as it was, my biggest complaint about The Grizzlies was the way it shows how a white man came into this Inuit community and gave them hope through sports. This would have been much worse if the film didn’t try so hard to say it was really the students who made the difference and not their teacher, who was often feeling very hopeless. 

The Grizzlies is a beautiful film, featuring lots of good acting and generally top-notch writing (there was one scene that made me cringe because it felt so unnaturally contrived). Most important, The Grizzlies provides us with an honest glimpse into the lives and struggles of the Inuit people of northern Canada, with a very strong comment on the role of residential schools in the difficulties facing young people in Kugluktuk today. I know it was an honest glimpse because the Q&A after the film featured members of the community who were represented in the film (along with the director, one of the actors and the real Russ Sheppard) and they told us the film was spot-on in its depiction of life in Kugluktuk.

The Grizzlies is an outstanding opening film and gets a solid ***+ heading toward ****. My mug is up and I encourage all readers to write the name of the film down so you don’t miss it when it gets released in the spring of 2019.

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