The opening of the recent film The Grizzlies silently follows a boy on a walk with his dog amidst a desolate landscape. He sits down amidst the rocky crags, calls his dog over, and pets him. Then the boy shoots himself, leaving the dog to run free. It’s an extremely jarring beginning to a film.
The boy is a member of the Nunavaut tribe in Northern Canada. Life for the people is categorized by standing around, drinking, smoking, and trying to survive a brutal climate. It’s no wonder the town has the highest suicide rate in the country.
Entering into this is Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), a young guy whose life has taken a northern detour to Nunavaut in order to teach high school students. He’s a bit arrogant and thinks he can simply come in sight unseen and make things happen, but soon experiences culture shock when what he thinks is a basic run to the grocery store ends up costing him hundreds of dollars. Sheppard’s first class in the town of Kugluktuk doesn’t fare much better. There are a handful of kids and only one (Miranda, played by Emerald MacDonald) has any interest in academics. Sheppard tries to go “by the books,” gets into a heated discussion with another student, then blocks the door and tells the student they’ll have to get past him first. The student punches Sheppard directly in the face and walks out.
Sheppard wants to get through to the kids and get them out of their situations, but their lives are mired in hopelessness he doesn’t fully understand. He attempts to push students to get better but to no avail. He protects one of his students from domestic abuse. He sees another student who is struggling and counsels him with basic platitudes. This backfires when Sheppard discovers the boy killed himself after their talk. Sheppard struggles with the ramifications and begins to wonder whether he can make any positive difference at all.
However, a breakout occurs when Sheppard realizes he already has the key to the tribe in his hands—a lacrosse stick. In Canada, the sport is nearly on par with ice hockey (it’s their national summer sport), but the students are reluctant to trust him when he begins to introduce the concept of a team. Only when he earns the trust of Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) does the town begin to show interest—even allowing a mini-tournament to be held in the local gym. That success leads Sheppard to enter a team from Kugluktuk into the national tournament. This drives a rift between the younger and older generation that threatens to rip the tribe apart.
The Grizzlies appears on the scene in a very unique time in history – it was scheduled to be released in the US in late February (I had the opportunity to screen it at that time), but The Virus Which Must Not Be Named pushed the release to this month. My first take on the film: there are some nice aspects (particularly the cinematography and acting of the teenage characters), but the desperation and darkness at the beginning is simply too heavy for the rest of the film to overcome. I still believe this six months later, but I think we need the ending more than ever right now.
With the world deep in the throes of a pandemic, the months of staying at home and limited contact with others (outside of a computer screen) have had a profound effect on people. A sense of hopelessness has developed as the days drag on. Frustration mounts as news reports provide pictures and videos providing conflicting information. Fear has arisen due to the unknowns and changes from what was once normal behavior. Yet hope isn’t cancelled. The sun rises each morning as a gentle reminder that today has the potential to be better than yesterday. As the Bible puts it, “[H]ope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Romans 8:24-25 NASB). We long for the days when handshakes and hugs become commonplace, when phrases such as social distancing disappear from use. We might not see things change immediately, but we keep praying and doing our part to help end the pandemic, remaining hopeful in the eventual outcome.
At the end of The Grizzlies, the team plays its qualification matches at the national tournament, but the stresses of life, the expectations of a community, and Sheppard’s decision to leave the tribe rain hopelessness on everyone. Goal after goal after goal is scored on them—and they have no comeback. But hope is waiting and enters the stage at the perfect time, performing a transformational work.
The Grizzlies is available on demand now.