The best lacrosse players tend to fall into two demographics: prep school elites and First Nations descendants of the original inventors of the game. The struggling Inuit students of a remote arctic Canadian town would identify with the latter. A new high school teacher introduces them to the game, but of course, he will learn just as much as his students in Miranda de Pencier’s The Grizzlies, which opens this Friday in New York, at least as of the last we heard.
Russ Sheppard accepted a temporary teaching position at Kugluktuk High School in Nunavut (Canada’s northernmost territory, which split off from the Northwest Territories in 1999), hoping it would bolster his wait-listed employment application at an elite prep school. Basically, he is like Dr. Joel Fleischman with a lacrosse stick, but Cicely, Alaska was considerably more prosperous than the community he finds himself in. In fact, Sheppard is so concerned by the high rate of teen suicide, he tries to form a lacrosse team, just to give the kids something to do.
Outsiders cannot get anymore outside than Sheppard, so he constantly commits cultural gaffes. Nevertheless, the power of the game starts to reach many of the kids—and they grudgingly start giving him credit for giving a darn. Unfortunately, the school principle remains skeptical and his best players will be constantly distracted by family issues.
One way or another, you know adversity will be triumphed over in a film like this. However, de Pencier sidesteps the most obvious sports underdog clichés, making their based-on-a-true-story victories modest and believable. Still, she leaves some rather glaring loose ends conspicuously hanging.
There is no denying The Grizzlies follows a time-honored formula, but de Pencier largely avoids cliched fish-out-of-water humor, in favor of well-intentioned social drama. Frankly, it is a baffling shame the film is rated R, because there is nothing here you couldn’t see in an after-school special. De Pencier just presents it all with brutal honesty.
Ben Schnetzer is always credible playing the teacher learning to engage with his students and their community, but he really is the least interesting character in the film. Emerald MacDonald is terrific as Miranda, Sheppard’s only diligent student, who becomes the student manager of The Grizzlies, as the team will eventually be known. Paul Nutarariaq, Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan, and Booboo Stewart are all impressive playing Zach, Adam, and Kyle, three kids struggling with very different challenges at home. Will Sasso also supplies some comic relief, but shrewdly, he and de Pencier keep it restrained (and therefore effective), as Sheppard’s rumpled sidekick, Mike.
The Grizzlies is a nice film that young people should respond to, but anyone who could buy a ticket without a parent or guardian will definitely feel like they have seen the gist of it before. Still, de Pencier does not sugar coat the poverty of Nunavut or the indifference of the local school bureaucrats. Recommended for teens looking for something deeper than CW TV shows or cheesy teen urban fantasy novels, The Grizzlies opens (maybe, hopefully) this Friday (3/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.