Synopsis: The dramatic story of one unforgettable athlete, Kevin Pearce; one eye-popping sport, snowboarding; and one explosive issue, Traumatic Brain Injury. A comeback story with a difference. This eye-popping film seamlessly combines twenty years of stunning action footage with new specially-shot verité footage and interviews as it follows U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce and exposes the irresistible but potentially fatal appeal of extreme sports
Stars: Kevin Pearce, Shaun White, Mason Aguirre, Scotty Lago, Jake Burton
Director: Lucy Walker
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: For a guy that was raised on Sunday evening episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos, I was trained at an early age to get a kick out of dogs that seemed to speak, grandmas that couldn’t ride bicycles, kids that said the darndest things, and a whole range of athletes taking a header in the middle of their time to shine. I’ll admit that I lived for these moments and for me it was mostly because it was a chance to see these men and women with seemingly superhero strength exhibit the very mortal blunders we couch potatoes regularly face when a patch of ice looms before us. We fall, we brush ourselves off, and we move on.
The thing is, as I grew older I started to wince more than I chuckled…wondering what happened after the editor cut away to the next laugh-inducing clip. Did these people really hurt themselves? If they weren’t wearing a helmet and banged their head was there any permanent damage? Watching the Winter Olympics every four years and seeing figure skaters, skiers, snowboards, and the like take a tumble I began to regret the evil joy I took in these moments.
So it’s strange that I missed out on The Crash Reel when it was broadcast on HBO earlier in the summer. I think it’s a case of reading the title and glancing at the poster art and assuming it was an extreme sports documentary where the snow was powder white and the ultimate rush was getting higher and higher in the air with various tricks and stunts.
What The Crash Reel is, though, is a riveting documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker (The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom) about those very moments I was talking about before…the moments after the fall when things aren’t so funny. Specifically, the film focuses on Kevin Pearce, a world-class snowboarder who was part of a new breed of superstar athlete that pushed the limits of his sport. That all changed in 2010 when at age 22 he suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury during a practice run that sidelined him from his dream of Olympic glory.
Using an amazing amount of footage culled from home movies, professionally shot sequences of Kevin and his friends on the slopes, and Walker’s own unobtrusive camera, The Crash Reel tells a few stories along the way. Though Kevin’s journey is the through line of the film and his friendship and eventual rivalry with fellow star snowboarder Shaun White is a (thankfully) minor subplot, Walker wisely lets her subjects guide the film.
When Kevin was injured his family was right there by his side and we watch as they go through their own struggle with the realities of what this injury will mean for Kevin’s future and their aching fear that rises up when he makes it clear his snowboarding days aren’t over. There’s a lot of honesty here and there are times when the audience starts to feel perhaps a bit too close to the family…and that’s why Walker’s film is so astounding. She’s put us right there in the middle of things as they’re happening.
A film about overcoming obstacles great and small, there’s a valuable supporting player that has to get a little digital ink and that’s Kevin’s brother David. The unquestionable emotional core of the very down-to-earth Pearce family, David is helped come to terms with his Down Syndrome through Kevin’s acceptance that his brain injury may have changed his course but hasn’t ended the journey. A dinner conversation between David and Kevin surrounding this conclusion is perhaps one of the most moving and healing scenes I’ve seen on film in recent memory.
Touching on several other athletes facing similar injuries (some of whom aren’t so lucky as Kevin) there’s a propulsive rhythm to the film that’s aided by slick editing and a harmonious soundtrack. Kevin, his family, and friends are vibrant and interesting and the message of the film is never timelier now that the Sochi Winter Games are right around the corner. At the start of the film I grimaced a bit when the footage showed people wiping out…by the end of the film it was almost too much to bear to watch now that we’ve taken this journey with one man and his family and seen the ripple effect one wrong move can have.