The Grizzlies gets into only a few minor scrapes on its way to a rousing finale

With so much talk these days of cultural appropriation and well-meaning but kind of racist movies (see The Upside, Green Book, The Best of Enemies), this based-in-fact story gave me pause. It’s the tale of a small town in Nunavut whose youth were inspired and given a sense of pride by the formation of a sports team.

On the one hand, the guy who creates the team is a white teacher from the south, played by Ben Schnetzer. And the film’s writing and directing talents are white too – Canadians Moira Wally-Beckett (Breaking Bad) and Graham Yost crafted the screenplay, while Miranda de Pencier makes her feature directing debut.

But the game in question is lacrosse, a First Nations sport (though not Inuit) with at least a thousand-year history. It was once played with teams numbering in the hundreds, the goals up to 10 kilometres apart. Imagine the intensity of football on a field the size of a golf course with more players than the Blue Jays have spectators these days.

Schnetzer plays Russ Sheppard, looking to bulk up his teaching resume with a year in the hamlet of Kugluktuk. But he’s unprepared for the students’ unenthusiastic response to education. Some need to spend time out on the land to help with hunting; others find it hard to get motivated when they can’t picture a future; and a few are dead. As the film notes darkly, the suicide rate in 2004, when it’s set, was 11 times the national rate, or 121 per 100,000 people. It’s come down in the years since, but not nearly enough.

The film highlights many of the problems facing the First Nations of the Far North, including the lasting impact of the residential school system, and the fact – recently “rediscovered” by the CBC – that basic groceries are several times more expensive there. There’s a quiet subplot about one of the kids (Paul Nutarariaq) not having enough to eat. And Will Sasso in comic-relief mode tells Russ how he handles the isolation of the North: “I do the same thing everyone else does; I drink.”

But the film really clicks thanks to the strong performances of its First Nations actors, including Tantoo Cardinal as a cynical council member and Emerald MacDonald as the quietly brilliant student Miranda. First-timers like Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan (his character has to sneak out to lacrosse practice so his grandparents won’t find out) rub shoulders with the likes of Booboo Stewart, whose credits include the Twilight and X-Men franchises. And there’s no better aid to verisimilitude than filming in the Arctic, with Iqaluit standing in for Kugluktuk.

Canada continues to push forward with stories of Aboriginal culture, sometimes stumbling badly. (At the risk of drawing forth more angry letters, I’ll repeat that last year’s Indian Horse was a great story told poorly.) The Grizzlies gets into only a few minor scrapes on its way to a rousing finale that beautifully subverts the sports-movie trope of the come-from-behind victory. And the soundtrack, stocked with wildly modern First Nations music, has almost as much to say as the story on the screen.

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