The Crash Reel: Sundance Review

This compassionate account of the thrills and risks of extreme sports makes it required viewing for both aspirants and enthusiasts.

Pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s recovery from a traumatic brain injury is a cautionary tale for the sport’s promoters and participants alike.

PARK CITY -- Competitive snowboarding isn’t much older than Kevin Pearce, the professional snowboarder at the center of Lucy Walker’s thrilling and compelling new documentary. By the time the film catches up with Pearce as he trains to qualify for the 2010 U.S. team, it has only been an Olympic sport for a dozen years.  

With such a brief history, snowboarding has become a magnet for youthful enthusiasts worldwide who are thrilled by the sport and by watching young riders compete. This global audience that extends even beyond most winter sports regions gives The Crash Reel potential for distribution in multiple territories, where it could readily capitalize on upcoming winter seasons in both hemispheres.

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Pearce, a Vermont native, began snowboarding as a young boy, then competing in local and regional competitions, and in 2005, at the age of 18, he went pro. Earning awards in numerous national events, Pearce frequently competed against Shaun White, an eventual Olympic gold-medal winner. But in the run-up to the 2010 games, Pearce and White were consistently trading first- and second-place finishes on the highly competitive international circuit.

As the walls on competition half-pipe runs soared up to 22 feet in height over the years, competitors were forced to devise more complex tricks performed at higher altitudes than ever before. Pearce was widely recognized as a leading aerialist who could land even the most challenging maneuvers with aplomb. His accomplishments were due not only to his natural ability, but also to his discipline and dedication -- Pearce reportedly practiced longer and harder than most of his peers and continued his athletic training in the off-season as well.

With multiple sponsors on his roster and numerous championships to his credit, Pearce was considered very likely to make the U.S. snowboarding team for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Then, just a few weeks before the qualifying trials, Pearce experienced a horrific crash on a half-pipe run while practicing one of the maneuvers he hoped to attempt at the Olympics -- ironically, on a slope in Park City -- and sustained a traumatic brain injury and chronic damage to one of his eyes.

Walker’s account of Pearce’s career picks up as he’s training for the Olympic trials, with dynamic footage of his jaw-dropping aerial tricks and off-slope camaraderie with a group of boarders he’s been riding with since his teens. She’s able to fill in his backstory with extensive home-video selections provided by Pearce’s family, as well as clips from numerous professional competitions.

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When the project that perhaps began as a more conventional sports documentary takes on new dimensions, Walker is inestimably aided by wide-ranging access to Pearce family members, as well as Kevin’s two-year rehabilitation process. Pearce spent months in a Denver rehab hospital once his condition stabilized, where neurologists and rehabilitation specialists evaluated his injury and helped him reacquire his mobility, speech and vision, all of which were impacted by the trauma, much like a stroke victim.  

As a twice Oscar-nominated director and a five-time Sundance filmmaker, Walker is also at the top of her own field and an ideal match for Pearce’s story. With a keen sense of the thrills of snowboarding, a cultivated understanding of the demands of the pro circuit and genuine compassion for the casualties of the sport, Walker’s particular talent in this film is in making the general more specific, focusing in on Pearce’s career and the aftermath of his injury to demonstrate the inherent risks involved with extreme sports.

Although he insists that he’ll eventually return to competitive snowboarding after his accident, Pearce is frustrated by his long recovery process and the lingering effects of his injury, including impaired vision, short-term memory loss and ongoing seizures. As he learns through his treatment of the thousands of primarily young adults affected by traumatic brain injuries sustained in familiar sports like football as well as extreme sports like half-pipe skiing, dirt biking and competitive skateboarding (demonstrated in a series of chilling crash-reel clips), Pearce begins to come to terms with his situation and envision new challenges to overcome.

A sports commentator’s repetition of the aphorism that “The brave don’t live forever, but the cautious don’t live at all” partway through the film belies the tremendous influence that the media and sporting industries have on young people and the responsibilities that they have yet to clearly fulfill. If they need a reminder, The Crash Reel provides it.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Production company: Tree Tree Tree Productions
Director: Lucy Walker
Screenwriters: Pedro Kos, Lucy Walker
Producers: Julian Cautherley, Lucy Walker
Executive Producers: Sheila Nevins
Supervising Producer
Sara Bernstein, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous
Director of photography: Nick Higgins
Editor: Pedro Kos
No rating, 107 minutes