By Kimber Myers | The Playlist December 10, 2013 at 5:18PM
Lucy Walker’s “The Crash Reel” would have been compelling if it were just about snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s career and impressive skills in the half pipe. Instead, we get a number of movies in one: a chronicle of Pearce’s attempts to return to normalcy after a brain injury, a showdown between Pearce and more famous rival Shaun White, and an examination of both the appeal and the danger of extreme sports. Combining this many elements should make the film feel unfocused and unnecessarily sprawling; instead it feels intimate and clear. Tying the various pieces of Pearce’s story and the surrounding information creates a holistic picture of Pearce’s experience, while establishing that his isn’t a unique one.
With just a few months to go before the the 2010 Winter Olympics, gold medal frontrunner Pearce attempted an epic trick called the “cab double cork.” Instead of completing the (frankly insane) trick, Pearce hit the snow in what a friend described as the “perfect storm of falls.” Though he was quickly airlifted from the Park City, Utah slope to the closest hospital, he was in a coma. While Pearce was lucky to survive his injury, he has a difficult road to recovery. Even if he regains much of his brain function, there’s question if it’s safe for him to attempt snowboarding again. Getting a second concussion is that much easier–and that much more dangerous–after the first injury. While Kevin is eager to return to the sport that defined his life, his close family is hesitant to see him risk paralysis, further brain damage and death.
Veteran filmmaker Walker (“Waste Land,” “Devil’s Playground”) has chosen a worthy subject whose past provides incredible depth to the coverage here. With Pearce’s prominence within the sport, there’s a wealth of archival footage from past events and interviews that creates a rich picture of his life before the accident. Supplemented with family videos, “The Crash Reel” rewinds to the athlete’s early years, showing his dedication to and skill within the sport. While his close-knit group of friends eat Ben & Jerry's and party, he skips the hangovers in favor of weight training. After the accident in Park City, we’re given a close look at his struggles to recover. One of the most interesting elements of “The Crash Reel” is the juxtaposition of Kevin’s new life with that of his brother David, who has Down’s Syndrome. David’s own story could have made its own film worth watching, and it enriches this documentary.
With its focus, “The Crash Reel” can never be accused of being dry or boring, but Walker brings an energetic style that also complements its subject. The subtitles and editing are reminiscent of X Games coverage, while being less in-your-face and managing not to feel derivative. Beyond the content of the film, we were most impressed by the artistry of the opening and closing credits as well as a sequence showing Pearce’s MRI with stark, ghostlike beauty. The closing credits show old footage of Pearce and competitor White, weaving through the snow as though they’re performing a graceful dance.
What’s most troubling about Pearce’s experience is that it doesn’t stand out. The documentary is filled with stories of other athletes who’ve experienced similar trauma; even the “lucky” ones have dozens of broken bones. In eulogizing a fallen athlete, X Games commenter Sal Masekela shares the oft-quoted line, “The brave do not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all." That struggle is what lies at the heart of the film. Amidst all the trauma that had me crying more than once throughout the film (I'm clearly not cut out for extreme sports), I was amazed by the incredible feats performed by the athletes. But while we gasped at the achievements, we couldn’t help but hold our breath each time in case the trick ended like Pearce’s unlucky cap double cork. [A-]