Grizzlies plays the misery card too hard and too often

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Grizzlies
RPL Film Theatre

Opens Friday 9

For a feel-good true-life sports story of triumph over adversity, The Grizzlies is surprisingly dark. It brings attention to the perils of being young and idle in an isolated northern community: unemployment and addiction rates are high, and moral runs low.

This is an indisputable problem that deserves our attention. That said, The Grizzlies handles the subject very broadly and the “white saviour” approach is awkward at best. It opens with a trigger-warning, signaling lack of confidence in the material (and the audience,  too).

The “hero” teaching rudderless youth how to better themselves is Russ (Ben Schnetzer, Warcraft), a rookie teacher from Toronto killing time until a better placement materializes. He is assigned to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, regrettably known as the suicide capital of North America.

Despite his best efforts, Russ miserably fails to connect with his indifferent Inuit students, while the veteran staff (Tantoo Cardinal, Will Sasso) are satisfied with preventing misbehaviour for a few hours a day. In desperation, Russ brings out his lacrosse equipment hoping for a modicum of interest.

The plan works better than expected. Russ puts together a local league and aims to qualify for a national tournament. Soon, he learns too much hope can be counterproductive (yeah, I rolled my eyes at that too).

The best thing I can say about The Grizzlies is that it’s well-intentioned and taps into something real. Written by Graham Yost (Speed) and produced by Frank Marshall (famed for his collaborations with wife Kathleen Kennedy), the film hits the sentimental beats with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Outside the mostly non-professional supporting cast and the score, the movie cries for a local hand in the creative team.

The film improves considerably when it stops trying so hard. The locals’ amusement upon seeing Russ jogging across town mid-winter feels real. Same occurs with a couple of Inuit elders who justifiably mistrust white peoples’ community initiatives (two words: residential schools).

It’s worth mentioning the team behind The Grizzlies has gone out of its way to take the film to remote communities and promote mental health awareness. All very commendable, but the movie itself is a miss.