Wednesday, January 22, 2020


"The Grizzlies" (2018) was a most improbable film for me to be bothered with.  Sports films follow a formula that is easily predictable and the description seemed a bit hokey. A bunch of losers get together and somehow miraculously win the championship at the last minute.  This is not quite like that.  Except these are real losers who are unaware of how scary the outside world is, except they are also afraid of it.

Confession:  I watched it because I was curious to see Tantoo Cardinal whose name I had assumed was male, and then realized she had been in a number of movies I have seen, but hadn't identified her.  I am now embarrassed by my ignorance, but pleased to learn more about her and this particular movie.  See more below

Suicide starts the film and we learn the highest suicide rate in the world is right there in Nunavut.  As you get to know and identify with the some of the characters there are more suicides.  Along the way are abusive dysfunctional families, alcoholism and distrust of the whites.  One of the background songs was by Kelly Fraser who herself committed suicide

A young southern teacher comes to the isolated Arctic town of Kugluktuk basically as he couldn't get a job anywhere else and is naive particularly when it comes to the native culture all the way through the film.  They have had bad experiences with the white man and their broken promises.  Russ is reprimanded for raising hopes. He has a great love for lacrosse and takes out some of his frustration shooting a ball against an empty garbage bin.

Yes there is a resemblance to all those other sports formulas, but with a big difference.  The Inuit are humiliated on the playing field and finally decide that just one goal will do it and of course that does indeed occur at the end of the tournament.  It is the process that is key to enjoying the movie.

See an earlier blog about a lacrosse movie that includes a personal connection to lacrosse plus opinions regarding native involvement, etc.

Based on a true story.  At the end many of the characters are updated and it appears that the real benefit came from finding a different path.

A story worth telling, but who wants to sit through an amateur presentation.  This project attracted and recruited a crew and cast that hits home.

Producers are responsible for organizing the many elements.  Miranda de Pencier was one of the original drivers and became director as well as producer.  She had been an actress, producer, writer and director including some of the Anne of Green Gables series, "Street Legal" and one Inuit short, "Throat Song."  She also directed "The Grizzlies."

Others on the producing team included Alethea Arnaquq-Baril who grew up in Iqaluit and Stacey Aglok MacDonald who grew up in Kugluktuk and both of them had been involved with television shows in the Inuktitut language.  Another  was Vinay Virmani who has been an actor, writer and producer with "Breakaway" and "Dr Cabbie" that involved Bollywood actors.  Vinay offered free Raptor tickets for a draw for people who would send him photos of a ticket for "The Grizzlies."
There was a  Mentor system set up to boost technical expertise for Inuit television programs.

The story had to be reduced to a script and two experienced writers were involved.  Moira Walley-Beckett had been a producer and writer for "Breaking Bad."  Graham Yost, son of tv personality Elway Yost (who I used to watch at Saturday Night at the Movies) involved as producer and writer for such films  as "Speed," "From the Earth to the Moon" and "The Pacific."

Background music was provided by Garth Stevenson who had composed for "Chappaquiddick" and has provided instrumental music for many movies.  Many indigenous musicians were heard in the movie.

Cinematography  was provided by Jim Denault who had done "Trumbo," "What Men Want," and "Freedom Writers."  One theme was that in Nunavut you "can see for miles."

Ben Schnetzer played the naive, but conscientious Russ Sheppard.  There was concern that it would appear the poor natives needed a white man to set them straight. In an early scene he confronts a student who knocks him down and is not charged.   In reality the real Russ was naive and frustrated that he kept making cultural mistakes.  Lacrosse was for him something that helped him maintain his sanity.  Many whites had not only failed before him but made the situation worse.  Ben, was an American who when he decided he wanted to act headed to Britain where he was able to get a lead role in "Pride" a movie where gays and union workers got together to fight for worker rights.  He played a German Jewish fugitive in "The Book Thief."  Also appeared in "Snowden."

Will Sasso played Mike, a fellow teacher and coach.  Will has played mostly supporting roles since 1991.  He was part of a winning ensemble cast for "Inside Moves."  At the end credits was a note that in reality Mike did not drink as much as depicted.

Tantoo Cardinal, who inspired my viewing actually was an activist in young adult hood.  She is a Metis,  part Cree and part French who felt strongly natives were not properly portrayed in films.   She had appeared in "Dances with Wolves" (1990), "Black Robe," (1991),  'Legends of the Fall" (1994), "Smoke Signals" (1998) and "A Thief of Time," all of which I enjoyed.   Having started in 1975 she has contributed a lot to indigenous roles in a wide variety of movies.  She has been awarded Order of Canada.  In this movie she played a very stern principal who shot down almost all Russ's ideas and chastised him for raising hopes.  Not very glamorous, but needed for its realism.

Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan played a non student with a family that deeply mistrusted whites and the school system, but was lured into the lacrosse program (including mandatory school attendance) and helped bring in others. Later it was his parents who swayed the school board into co-operating.  Paul Nutariaq played Zach who was rebellious, but in the school system helped bring more participants.  Anna Lambe played the girlfriend of one classmate who committed suicide and later she designed team logo and put a discrete, artistic and symbolic forehead tattoo on herself.  When asked about what she wants, she ends up playing on the team.  Emerald MacDonald played an overweight, shy young girl who is the most studious in the class and later gets involved with the team as a valued administrator.  We learn she lives in an abusive family, but learns to stand up for herself.

The real Russell Sheppard actually stayed in Kugluktuk for seven years and later taught in other locations and eventually became a lawyer in Cranbrook, British Columbia.  He retained a strong interest n lacrosse.  He consulted with the crew and even took a cameo role as a referee.

Expecting a juvenile film I was jolted right from the start.  Thought I knew a bit about the Inuit situation, but came to realize I don't.  Well worth watching.

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