Starring Ben Schnetzer. In English and Inuktitut, with English subtitles. Rated PG
A newly minted doctor, mired in student debt, reluctantly moves to a small town near the Arctic Circle, and encounters impoverished but characterful Inuit plus some eccentric exiles. Wait a minute: that’s the pilot for Northern Exposure, not the plot of The Grizzlies!
Well, the new movie does manage to cover fresh territory in its tale of an arrogant outsider who gets educated by the locals. Here, the arriviste is Russ Sheppard, a novice teacher literally cooling his heels in a remote Nunavut outpost, paying off loans until a posh private-school gig comes through.
He’s played by Euro-American Ben Schnetzer (Pride, The Riot Club), who does the Clueless White Guy thing quite well. Using the actor’s apparent mixed-race background could have added a little more complexity to the initially routine script from Breaking Bad producer-writer Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost (who wrote Speed). Our newbie’s only guides, when faced with students who clearly don’t want to be in school, are another Southie (B.C.’s Will Sasso), who has chosen to drink and keep his head down, and the school principal (national treasure Tantoo Cardinal), understandably impatient with pale dudes who think they can master any situation.
Russ admits he’s in over his head, and then launches an overly familiar salvation story with the realization that his knowledge of lacrosse—played for perhaps a thousand years before Europeans arrived—can pull the kids together. Smoothly directed by Miranda de Pencier, better known for producing Beginners and the Green Gables update Anne with an E, the film is unsparing in its depiction of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and teen suicide. And it’s surprisingly clear in suggesting the roots of these problems—especially when it comes to survivors of residential schools passing on their trauma and mistrust of institutions in general.
Where The Grizzlies, named after the eventual team, really comes to life is in the space it gives a young, mostly nonprofessional cast to shine as winning individuals. (Newcomers Anna Lambe and Ricky Marty-Pahtayken have inherent star power.) As you’d expect, in the end, Russ doesn’t want to leave this faraway place. And neither will you.