The Grizzlies

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
The Grizzlies Movie Poster Image
Powerful Canadian sports drama promotes understanding.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 102 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Inner strength can be stronger than past or present difficulties. Change creates consequences. It's important to keep your promises, especially when you've made them to vulnerable people. Sports are depicted as positive outlet for teens, offering opportunities for leadership, teamwork, providing hope and increased self-esteem. Story is about lacrosse team of Canadian Inuit teens who are coached by a White outsider who thinks he can improve/"fix" them and their community, which falls into "White savior" territory. But movie's ultimate message on that is that the teacher is in way over his head, he has a lot of learning to do, and he needs to respect and understand a culture he isn't familiar with.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Russ fights for his students' well-being; he makes mistakes in how he talks to and interacts with them but learns from his errors (eventually), apologizes, strives to do better and respect them and their culture. Offers deep exploration into Canadian Inuit community, its challenges and customs, and pain and struggle that continue because of colonialism. Russ, who's a would-be White savior character, learns that he has a lot to learn about a culture and community he thinks needs "fixing." Other characters point out his shortcomings and lack of understanding ("this is not about you!") and help him learn to see other points of view. Teens face serious challenges but eventually thrive through collaboration, teamwork. One teen boy empathizes with his abusive father because he knows his dad was also a victim of abuse when he was forced to attend a residential school. Nonstereotypical gender representations include female student who joins male lacrosse team, a teen boy who cares tenderly for his little brother. 


Teen suicide. Several scenes of domestic violence: punches, bruises, blood. Fistfight. A teen punches an adult authority figure. Guns are seen in connection with hunting, and a bloody animal carcass is eaten. Arguments, yelling.


Two dating teens are affectionate.


Strong language includes "ass," "crap," "retarded," "s--t," "hell," "a--hole," "crap," and several uses of "f--k." "Jesus" is used as an exclamation. Also insult language such as "fat," "lazy," "whiny babies," and various uses of "d--k."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens frequently drink hard liquor out of bottles; there are sometimes severe consequences but not always. Teens and kids smoke cigarettes, pot. Adults are seen passed out on several occasions, empty liquor bottles nearby. An adult is seen drinking while driving and offers a justification.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Grizzlies is a powerful drama based on a true story. It follows Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), a newly graduated White teacher from the city who takes what he thinks will be a resume-building assignment in Kugluktuk, a remote Canadian Indigenous community. His students are grappling with serious challenges, including poverty, hunger, domestic violence (with punches, bruises, and blood), substance abuse, and being unhoused. The Nunavut territory is also facing an epidemic of teen suicide. The movie lays out that all of this is part of ongoing intergenerational trauma due to the pain and struggle of colonialism. Many characters, including teens, frequently drink hard liquor and smoke both cigarettes and pot; the substance use isn't glamorized. Strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," and more, and guns are used for hunting. Sheppard's character falls into "White savior" territory -- he thinks he can "fix" his Inuit students and their community -- but his lack of understanding of their culture leads to dire consequences. Ultimately, the story sends the message that there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution and makes clear the damage people can do when they try to impress their way of life onto an unfamiliar culture. It also celebrates teamwork and sports as a means to increased hope and self-esteem. 

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What's the story?

Based on a true story, THE GRIZZLIES follows first-year teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) as he takes a temporary assignment to teach at a high school in Kugluktuk, a small town in Canada's remote Nunavut territory. Having no success at getting his Inuit students to show up for class -- and seeing that many of the teens roam around town drinking and smoking -- he believes that teaching them lacrosse will get them in school and motivate them to achieve. But really it's Sheppard who has a lot to learn.

Is it any good?

Calling The Grizzlies a "Canadian high school sports movie" would significantly undersell its value. This little indie about lacrosse is right up there with Hoosiers, Miracle, and Friday Night Lights on the list of most powerful sports movies. It doesn't just defy sports movie clichés: It embraces and then exceeds the genre by delivering a meaningful and important story about an Indigenous community that has the highest suicide rate in North America. Not only are Kugluktuk's teens facing challenges like poverty, hunger, and abuse, but they're trying to exist in a world where colonizers have marginalized their people and disrupted centuries of customs and culture.

It may raise some eyebrows, then, that the movie's "hero," Russ Sheppard, is a White man. But what initially looks like another White savior story is more a fish-out-of-water tale. Yes, the story centers on Sheppard's narrative -- starting when he arrives in Kugluktuk fired up and ready to attack his first teaching assignment before getting the heck out of the Arctic and into a sweet prep school gig. But the movie also shows us behind-the-scenes glimpses of his students' complicated lives. That helps viewers understand why, when Sheppard sees that his students aren't motivated to come to school, to participate, or to complete assignments, it's a mistake for him to apply the solutions that many White urbanites might consider common sense -- i.e., tough talk and calling out "troublemakers." He fails tragically. And that's where director Miranda de Pencier turns what seems like a Dangerous Minds-type film into a slap upside the head for assuming that you can come into a new culture and identify what needs "fixing." Trying to impose your way onto others, even those who seem to be struggling, can be far more damaging than effective. While The Grizzlies hits all the marks to leave you cheering, it will also leave you crying and, hopefully, thinking.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Grizzlies promotes teamwork. Why is that an important character strength?

  • Are smoking, drinking, and drug use glamorized? Are there consequences? Why does that matter?

  • What does the term "White savior narrative" mean? Do you think this film supports that concept? Why or why not? What is the film trying to say about intergenerational trauma and the impact of colonization and cultural interference?

  • The cast is populated with Inuit actors from the Nunavut territory, and the producer also comes from Kugluktuk. Why does that matter in telling this specific story? Why is authentic representation in the media important overall?

  • How does this compare to other sports films you've seen? What do they tend to have in common?

Movie details

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