“Welcome to the edge of the world. Or the end of the world, depending on how long you’ve been here.”
That’s how fresh-outta school teacher/lacrosse enthusiast Russ Sheppard is welcomed to Kugluktuk—a tiny town nestled up against the Arctic Circle and surrounded by rock, water and snow. It’s the only town of any consequence for hundreds of miles. So a bag of chips cost 16 bucks. A bag of groceries? Add a zero. Most residents—mainly Inuits who called this land home long before it became a part of Canada—hunt their food. And few have much love, or respect, for white outsiders like Russ.
Many Copper Inuits blame those white outsiders for destroying not just their way of life, but their lives themselves. Before “southerners” came up north to mine their lands and “improve” their people, life was hard but the people were proud. Now they’re poor. Thin walls barely keep out the cold. Some kids sleep two or three to a bed. On top of all that, many high schoolers seem to only endure the cold days and nights through drug and alcohol abuse.
And for some, it’s still unendurable. In 2004—the year Russ first set eyes on province of Nunavut—its suicide rate was one of the highest in the world.
No matter, Russ believes. “I’ll whip [my students] into shape,” he brags to the school principal. And if he doesn’t? That’s OK. After all, Kugluktuk is just a dues-paying stop on his way to somewhere bigger, better and warmer.
But when his methods come up short and one of his own students kills himself, Russ realizes that this gig represents something more than another bulletpoint on his resume. His students are in crisis. They need something more than what this patch of ice has given them so far. Something that doesn’t just touch their minds, but heals their souls, if only a little. He stares at his Lacrosse stick, hanging on an otherwise empty wall in his house, and Russ knows he has his answer.
Russ intimates that lacrosse saved him when he was lost and adrift. He believes that the sport can do the same for his students. And, of course, it does.
It’s not easy to get the kids to play. But once they do, the sport becomes a conduit for self-improvement for many. Because Russ requires his lacrosse players to attend school to participate in this school function, attendance skyrockets. Grades go up. Alcohol and drug abuse go down. As one of the team’s leaders says in a meeting, “We are proud. Strong. Full of hope. Instead of drinking, fighting or killing ourselves, we play.” And in the end, those that play form a sort of family—a family much needed when so many had lost their own family members to suicide.
But the story’s not just about how a sport raised the spirits of a handful of high school students; it’s also about how Russ (and his pride) is taken down a welcome notch or two. When he shows up, the history teacher is culturally clueless and completely unsympathetic to the unique sets of challenges his students face. For instance, when one of his players trudges lackadaisically up the court, he tells him that lacrosse is no place for “little whiny babies.” It’s only when another student tells Russ that the player’s family is literally starving does he realize the scope of the boy’s issues.
Russ grows to appreciate and even love his students. And those students grow to love him, too—welcoming him into their own family.
An elder tells Russ an old Inuit myth involving Sedna, the goddess of the sea: In the legend, her father chopped off her fingers, which became the first seals. And when a Shaman attends to her, she again releases her fingers and allows them to transform into seals.
A cemetery is filled with whitewashed crosses marking graves.
Roy and Spring, two students in Russ’s history class, are an item. The couple sits together in class and elsewhere, Roy’s arm constantly wrapped around Spring’s shoulders and nuzzling his face next to hers.
Russ encourages his lacrosse players to treat their lacrosse sticks as if they were their girlfriends: They need to be kept close always and treated with care and respect.
We see a few girls who look to be just old enough to be in high school carrying babies around.
Kyle, another player on Russ’s team, has an abusive father. Kyle confesses that he feels sorry for his dad: “He’s a residential school survivor,” he tells Russ. “He was like, abused and stuff.” What that abuse consisted of goes unsaid.
We’ve mentioned that suicide is a massive problem for this far-north community, and we witness visceral evidence of that problem. In the movie’s opening minutes, a high school boy sticks a rifle underneath his chin. We don’t see the gun go off, but we do hear it—echoing through the cold. Later, police find a criminal who has hung himself in a jail cell. (We see just a bit of the victim’s head and the clothing he used to do the deed.) Another suicide takes place off camera.
A student slugs Russ in the face. A lacrosse player pushes another player down during practice. Russ tells his players that lacrosse is a contact sport—but the contact is pretty restrictive. Using his assistant coach as an unwitting dummy, he shows the players just what can’t be done with a lacrosse stick. Games can get pretty rough, too, with several players getting checked and knocked to the ground.
We see a man hit his son and terrorize his family. (We later hear that the man’s wife suffered a concussion and a broken arm.) A woman slaps her sister. The two later get into a physical fight. A female high-school student runs into Russ’s house with her face bloodied, telling him that her boyfriend did this to her. The two later get into a physical fight. A seal is carved up for meat, and we see its bloody innards. (A man comes to the door with his hands and arms covered in blood, and he asks the visitor if he’d like to stay for dinner.) A guy saves a dog from running out into the street (and likely coming to a gruesome end).
About eight f-words and 10 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—” and “d–khead.” God’s name is misused four times, and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
When Russ asks a fellow teacher (Mike) how he deals with Kugluktuk, Mike says, “I do the same thing everyone else does. I drink.”
People drink a lot here. It’s the catalyst for a couple of instances of domestic violence, and when Russ first sees his high school charges, they’re sitting outside a store front, guzzling booze. We see them drink at other times, too, and Russ apparently smells alcohol on one of his lacrosse players’ breath when he shows up for practice. Another lacrosse player lives with parents who (it appears) consistently drink themselves into comas: They sprawl on the couch, unconscious, with a riot of bottles surrounding them. Russ, when he’s discouraged at one point, seems to drink heavily, too. (We also see students pass around what appears to be a marijuana joint.) Russ’s plane to Kugluktuk carries a huge shipment of vodka, obviously meant for the residents.
None of this alcohol or drug use is glorified, though: Rather, it’s something that Russ hopes lacrosse will pull his players away from. When Russ suggests that their team might have a chance to go to Toronto for a tournament, the students think it’s a chance to party. Russ tells them otherwise. “You’ve got to make better decisions than booze and drugs, guys,” he scolds.
Only once is liquor used as a joke: After Mike almost hits a dog with his truck, he takes out his ever-present flask and drinks. As Russ stares at him, Mike explains that he has “anxiety issues.”
One of Russ’s students breaks into a store to steal food and money—an effort, the movie tells us, to feed and care for his younger brother. A player vomits after running. Russ’s students treat Russ incredibly disrespectfully at first, and they often don’t come to class (or do their assignments) at all.
Russ makes his own share of mistakes—roaring up to a student and his family as they silently wait to hunt seals. Any noise, the student explains to a sheepish Russ, scares them away—and he and his family had been waiting to hunt one in that spot for hours.
The Grizzlies is based on a true story. A teacher named Russ Sheppard really did bring Lacrosse to this cold, faraway nook in Canada, and even many of the players are based on real people who, 15 years after the events of the film, are raising their own families.
This movie, like many other inspirational sports flicks, reminds us that sports can be a powerful catalyst for change. Through hard work, cooperation and discipline, these stories tell us, a motley band of also-rans and ne’er-do-wells can remake themselves into something better and find, for lack of a better word, a family.
The Grizzlies also offers some remarkable messages: The value of hard work. The power of shared goals. The importance of family, however you define it. We see a bunch of high schoolers reject a path to self-destruction and follow a higher road. We see a teacher/coach who discovers he has perhaps more to learn than to teach. And while the movie sometimes threatens to fall into a white savior complex (something the filmmakers tried hard to avoid), the takeaways here are otherwise spot on. It respectfully gives us access to an unfamiliar culture and treats that culture with respect and honor, all while suggesting that sometimes change can be pretty good, too. And even though it deals with some really hard, tragic issues, it does so with surprising restraint.
There is, however, one notable and, given all that I’ve said above, especially disappointing exception.
The Grizzlies feels like a family movie. Its vibe almost invites moms and dads to gather their sons and daughters together to watch. It could’ve been a PG or PG-13 movie that might’ve become an inspirational touchstone in the lives of some young lacrosse players. And yet, the wholly unnecessary nasty language here pushes this film out of family viewing territory and into a more cynical, likely less appreciative stratosphere.
As a coach, Russ understood that some things were incompatible with on-field success. The drinking had to stop. The truancy had to be curbed. I’d argue that the filmmakers missed, in a way, that secondary but valuable lesson. In a film that didn’t need profanity—indeed, where profanity feels strangely out of step with the rest of the film’s feel—it found its way in anyway. Because of its language issues, an audience that might’ve appreciated The Grizzlies the most will likely never see it.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.