From excellent Emmy-winning writers Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost comes The Grizzlies, a true sports story that is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. Set in 2004 in the isolated Northern Canadian hamlet of Kugluktuk where suicide rates are the highest on the continent, a group of high school students learn the sport of lacrosse and attempt to escape the cycle of mistreatment and pain that has plagued indigenous people for generations.
Inuit teenagers see no future for themselves in this town at the “edge of the world – or the end of the world, depending on how long you’ve been here.” That is how young Russ Shepard (a very endearing Ben Schnetzer) is greeted when he lands in the desolate tundral town where alcoholism and abuse are as common as poverty. The recent college graduate sees the Kugluktuk school as a stepping stone to better things, forced to deal with low attendance and a group of unenthusiastic students plagued with pain and mistreatment at the hands of alcoholic or abusive parents.
The shocking and sudden suicide of one of his students leads him to take action, and Russ decides to bring the discipline and joy of sports to kids who desperately need purpose. Cinematographer Jim Denault brings to life the tundral landscape and the grit of the sad small town, while director Miranda de Pencier brings it all together with heart and enthusiasm that never tips over into saccharine territory.
But it is ultimately the story itself that will inspire viewers at a time when we could all use a little something to celebrate. Walley-Beckett and de Pencier brought to life a similarly touching and frustrating story of the indigenous plight with their work on the charming Netflix series Anne with an E; Yost is no stranger to telling painful stories of overcoming hardship and stirring empathy with his work on the outstanding HBO series The Pacific.
Russ is told at one point in The Grizzlies that there is too much standing in the way of these kids to give them false hope – to make them believe they can succeed when their circumstances are so bleak. “That’s the whole point,” he says. “ To raise their hopes.” This sentiment is at the heart of this special film – the idea that even in the bleakest, farthest reaches of the planet, where people have been treated horribly for centuries, there can still be light.
Perhaps the fact that it was pushed from its original March U.S. release date is fitting: maybe we need to be reminded, now more than ever, that there can still be a hopeful way out of hard times. That sometimes it’s as simple as a game.
The Grizzlies will be available On Demand Sept. 14.