Editor’s note: this review contains mentions of suicide, death, trauma.
The Grizzlies opens starkly with a series of black and white school photographs, featuring Indigenous children with cropped hair, wearing school uniforms. These are the victims of Canada’s residential school system, a government-supported initiative to take the children away from their families and way of life, and indoctrinate them. Under this system, children were taken to boarding houses and forced to assimilate into French-Canadian culture and many experienced violent abuse. With such a bleak opening, The Grizzlies asks the viewer to consider the grip of colonialism, and its poisonous legacy on Indigenous communities.
Inside a tiny, Indiana Jones-esque airplane, a smiling white man makes small talk with the other passengers. Russ is a fresh-out-of-college history teacher, embarking on his probationary year in the remote town of Kugluktuk, in the Northern Territories in Canada. What he finds there is an isolated Arctic town battered by poverty, alcoholism, and the highest rate of teenage suicide in North America. After the initial opening, we cut to a snow-covered hill, where a young boy and his dog sit. The boy tells his dog to run away, before pulling out a rifle and placing it under his own chin. Off-screen, the shot fires. Here, The Grizzlies begins to splinter into two different films, undecided between Russ’ main arc — which betrays a white saviour narrative, and the coming-of-age side plots featuring the local teenagers.
Russ’ students are naturally skeptical as he tries to exercise authority, and more so as he arrogantly stumbles through Inuit custom. He discovers quickly that he is woefully unprepared to support these vulnerable young people. Many of their parents were victims of residential schools, and the reverberations of trauma are felt by the teens. Shaken by the death of one of them, Russ’ solution is to give the teens something to do: lacrosse! After bribing one of the more popular boys to come and try out, Team Grizzly is formed and Russ finally gets what he wants. Attendance at school increases, the students are more engaged, and it seems that playing the sport has caused this. In Russ’ eyes, he has done transformative community work. In the eyes of the elders and other teachers, a temporary band aid has been fixed atop their collective wounds. The issues facing the community are complex and precarious and as Russ fails to get recognition for setting up the team, he butts heads with the community leaders. With the plot anchored to Russ, The Grizzlies struggles to balance his arc with the more important characters, the struggling teenagers. However, the ambivalent conclusion highlights that while the lacrosse team offered something new to the unruly teenagers, it has far from restored the community.
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