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Grizzlies is a 2021 Canadian sports drama film, directed by Matt Johnson and written by Johnson and Josh Boles. Inspired by the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash, the film stars Ben Aykroyd, Jason Neely, Amy Forsyth, Will Arnett, and Tom Holland. Jared Raab served as the director of photography, while Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ròs provided the original score. The film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and was released theatrically on August 29, 2021, to critical acclaim.

Plot

19-year-old Owen Milano (Ben Aykroyd) is a left-wing for the Ferguson Grizzlies, a junior ice hockey team from the fictional city of Ferguson, Ontario, having of joined the team a year ago with his childhood best friend, 20-year-old Brett Dunn (Jason Neely), the son of an Ottawa Senators alumnus; they are also close friends with teammate Alex Wilhelm (Tom Holland). The three players are mentored by Todd Mikhail (Blake Jenner) a centreman and the captain of the team. Owen has a strong but seemingly hopeless crush on Todd’s 20-year-old girlfriend, Laura Day (Amy Forsyth), who is also the mother of their 2-year-old son, Gunner Day-Mikhail (Toby Johnson).

On the way to a game in Waterloo, the team‘s bus is hit and totaled by a truck driver who is texting behind the wheel. The crash instantly kills five of the players and the driver, while Todd dies of his critical injuries at the hospital. Alex wakes up and discovers that he will be paralyzed below the waist and thus unable to play anymore and tries to unplug his life support, but is restrained and sedated by the doctors. He wakes up strapped to his bed, with Owen and Brett (both of whom were unharmed in the crash) sitting next to his bed to comfort him. Owen consoles Laura when she arrives to find that her boyfriend is dead.

The team are given the option to sit out the rest of the season, but Coach Morrissey (Will Arnett) and the players jointly decide to keep going in order to respect their fallen teammates. Most of the survivors, including Owen and Brett, tart struggling with depression and PTSD, while Alex begins abusing his painkillers. Owen moves in with Laura so Gunner has a male figure to look up to. One night after putting Gunner to bed, Laura has a drink with Owen and he tells her how he feels. She reciprocates, and they kiss. In the locker room, Owen tells his teammates that he and Laura are now romantically involved; this is met with mostly negative reaction from the team, with Todd’s best friend, Mitch Hagen (Spencer LoFranco), accusing him of taking advantage of Todd’s death and refusing to talk to him off the ice. However, many of the other players are quickly sold on the legitimacy of his intentions when they see how good he is to her and Gunner, with veteran player Nico Lawley (Israel Broussard) in particular coming to respect him for stepping up to take care of them.

The story of the crash becomes an international news story, with numerous celebrities and politicians tweeting their support and pretty much the whole country of Canada showing their solidarity with the players by leaving hockey sticks on their front porches. At one game in Waterloo, the announcer has all of the fans stand for a moment of silence, which causes Nico to experience flashbacks and have a panic attack in the middle of the game. To make matters worse, a freelance journalist writes a tweet criticizing the overwhelming support for the team as being based on the fact that they are all white men. While the comments is universally disowned (including by the online journal the journalist works for), they serve as a huge blow to the players’ self-esteem.

That night, Owen receives a phone call that Alex has overdosed on his painkillers, an apparent suicide attempt. Owen, Brett, and Nico go to visit him in the hospital and try to console him, discovering that he strongly took the journalist’s words to heart in his vulnerable mental state. They try to help him but eventually leave him alone in the hospital bed when they come to realize that they can’t help him at the moment, feeling incomplete in the process. Owen decides to get a card for him and has all of the teammates sign it in the locker room. When Mitch refuses to sign it because he doesn’t wanna talk to Owen, Nico steps up and criticizes his preconceptions about Owen’s relationship as juvenile and superficial, getting into a physical fight with Mitch after accusing him of overcompensating for the fact that he doesn’t know how to handle his emotions about what happened. The teammates all pull them off and seperate them. Mitch later realizes that his accusations were based on superficial misconceptions of what romantic relationships are about and apologizes to Owen, and they reconcile with a hug.

The team plays a game against the Hamilton Hawks, winning and advancing to the championship round. This proves to be an inspirational story for many Canadians. Brett and Owen later give an interview where they say that “it’s okay to not be okay,”, before crediting the support of the community (and, in Owen’s case, of his new family) for being the reason they’re still alive to do what they do. At home, Gunner asks Owen if he’s his daddy now, which troubles him. He later asks Laura if she thinks Todd would be angry at him for being with her, and she responds that he would be happy that Owen is taking care of him and that he genuinely loves her, which eases him. The next morning, they go out to breakfast and run into Alex, who has started leaving his apartment for the first time in months. Alex reveals that he has received an offer to compete on the Canadian Paralympic team, and they agree that they’ve all done each other proud. Nico receives his support dog, whom he names “Grizzly Bear”. Grizzly Bear makes him visibly happier than he’s been since the accident.

The team prepares for the championship game against the Toronto Snow Kings, and they all reveal that Owen has been chosen to play centre (Todd’s old position) for the game. In the locker room, Coach Morrissey gives them a speech where he praises them for their strength and exclaims that he’s proud to be their coach. During the game, Owen notices Laura and Gunner, as well as Alex, in the audience. Although the Snow Kings gain the upper hand in the first half of the game, the team realizes that the entire country is rooting for them and manage to tie with them towards the end of the game. Before the last play, Owen huddles with his teammates and says, “Whatever happens, what ever the outcome, you are all winners and I am so proud to call you my friends.” They then score the winning play with thirty seconds left in the game, and the entire stadium (including both teams) stop and watch in awe as the clock strikes down and the buzzer sounds, declaring the Grizzlies the Ontario Hockey League champions. Everyone in the crowd applauds thunderously and several people cry. Alex simply sits there, smiling proudly to himself. Laura, who is hysterical, grabs Gunner and runs runs the ice, embracing with Owen in front of the entire stadium. They take a second to hold the trophy and take in how much they’ve achieved, before the entire team, with Laura and Gunner in tow, leave the stadium. As they do so, Coach Morrissey smiles, lightly shakes his head in disbelief, and tips his hat.

Cast 

  • Ben Aykroyd as Owen Milano
  • Jason Neely as Brett Dunn
  • Any Forsyth as Laura Day
  • Will Arnett as Coach Morrissey
  • Tom Holland as Alex Wilhelm
  • Israel Broussard as Nico Lawley
  • Spencer LoFranco as Mitch Hagen
  • Blake Jenner as Todd Mikhail

Director Matt Johnson’s son, Toby Johnson, plays Gunner Day-Mikhail, Todd and Laura’s toddler son. Johnson, Evangeline Lily, and Jacob Tremblay appear in a few scenes as Owen’s billet family. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau briefly plays himself in a scene where he offers his condolences to the team on live TV.

Production 

Development

Canadian independent filmmaker Matt Johnson, best known for his films The Dirties and Operation: Avalanche, announced in 2017 that he was looking to make “something of a somewhat larger scale, but still indie.” He was specifically interested in telling a story about toxic masculinity without overtly criticizing men in general, with a message that men have the right to struggle and experience strong emotions, but struggled to find the right story idea to convey those messages. He found inspiration after the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash, deciding to use that storyline because of hockey’s aggressively masculine reputation and history with systematic violence and toxic masculinity. “Society tends to mold young men, especially athletes, in a certain way from a young age,” he said in an interview. “Like, you’re not allowed to cry or me emotionally vulnerable in any way or you’re weak. When, in all reality, it takes strength to be emotional. It’s hard to open up.” He also added that he was inspired by how the survivors of the accident handled what happened and became mental health advocates, stating, “These young men were forced to grow up really quickly, more quickly than anyone should have to at nineteen or twenty. They’ve handled it remarkably well and they’ve just been so honest about the experience and how hard it was, and I think there’s truly something to be respected and admired about that. It really is amazing.”

In writing the screenplay, Johnson and his screenwriting collaborator, Josh Boles, chose to create a fictional story and characters that was heavily inspired by the real story out of respect for the players’ privacy. “The story as a whole is one I wanted to tell,” Johnson said, “but the individual stories of the players are not mine to tell. I was scared shitless of the very idea of dramatizing the very personal stories of the survivors who are still alive to tell the stories themselves from the perspective of the person who actually went through it. It didn’t sit well with me.” Owen was intended to be an inherently likable everyman whom the audience develops a connection with, while Brett is based on a classmate of Johnson’s from high school, who was the grandson of a Toronto Maple Leafs alumnus. The character of Laura was created to facilitate commentary about how romantic relationships are viewed by most people, particularly by the media. “I think the common conceptions about love and relationships are really superficial, and I think it’s mostly perpetrated by movies,” Johnson said. “When you love someone in real life, especially someone who’s been through what she goes through in the film, you willingly open yourself to taking some of those burdens upon yourself. You can’t be in it for the sex, you can’t be in it simply for the sake of being in a relationship. The moment you take that on, it immediately stops being about you.”

Casting

Johnson had wanted to work with Ben Aykroyd for years, impressed by his performance as a high-functioning autistic teenager in George A. Romero’s 2013 horror film Return of the Dead. Aykroyd agreed to play the role without reading the script, later stating that he was “beyond honored to be a part of telling this story. I would’ve done the catering if that was what they wanted me to do. I was thrilled to contribute in any way.” Amy Forsyth, Aykroyd’s real-life girlfriend and RotD costar, was almost immediately cast as Laura. Johnson approached Jason Neely, a Chicago Blackhawks player and Boston Bruins alumnus Cam Neely’s son, for the role of Brett, but Neely had a commitment to his team and politely turned him down, changing his mind after the Blackhawks’ management permitted it. Tom Holland was cast as Alex, and was drawn to the idea playing a more serious role after being best known for playing Spiderman. Holland struck up a friendship with Ryan Straschnitzsky, a Paralympic athlete and Humboldt crash survivor who was paralyzed in the accident, after contacting him during his research for the role. Will Arnett was cast in the role of Coach Morrissey from a shortlist that also included Ryan Reynolds, Will Sasso, and Bruce Greenwood. Israel Broussard, Spencer LoFranco, Josh Wiggins, Charlie Rowe, and Blake Jenner were announced to have been cast in October of 2019.

Filming 

Principal photography took place in Oshawa, Ontario, from January to March of 2020, with Jared Raab serving as the cinematographer. The film was shot on 35mm film, with a loose filming style that emulated ‘70s and ‘80s character drama films. Johnson and Jay McCarroll edited it.

In the script, Coach Morrissey cries when the team wins at the end of the film, but Arnett smiled and tipped his hat instead because he felt as though it was more subtle. Johnson loved this and later admitted that the crying idea was “embarrassing.”

Soundtrack

Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ròs composed the original score for the film, while the song “About Today” by American indie rock band The National was used in the final scene.

Release and Reception

The film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and was released in the US and Canada on August 29, 2021. Entertainment One distributed the film in Canada, while A24 released it in the US. The reviews were universally positive, with many critics praising the direction, script, performances, soundtrack, and cinematography. A lot of people considered it to be one of the most compelling and emotional sports films ever made, with several critics comparing it to Rocky.

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