It’s easy to make a surface level look at so-called “extreme sports.” I use the quotes around the term because anyone that makes it to the top of any sport on a professional level is forced to use their skills to the extreme every chance they get, putting their bodies and minds on the line on a constant basis. It’s another thing to take a uniquely human and sprawling look at a sport that’s still relatively in its infancy in terms of mainstream success to talk about larger and more pressing issues.
Filmmaker Lucy Walker is looking at professional snowboarding in her film, The Crash Reel. It’s been talked about and doted over already on the big screen and in countless television profiles. Its inclusion in the Olympics at a time when other sports are starting to get cut suggest it’s achieved a modicum of mainstream success from passing squares, but as her film’s subject remarks, it’s still a sport that in terms of skill and the tricks being employed in big air, downhill, and half-pipe competitions, grows exponentially harder every year. It’s that drive and determination of an athlete that makes any sports movie a valid one. It’s the hardship they face that can make such a film satisfying. But to take both elements and combine them to look at a sport and an individual with equal reverence, respect, and a hereto forth unseen amount of thought and compassion makes the work Walker produces into something far more special.
Walker’s subject is Kevin Pearce, who just a little bit over a month before heading to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics as one of the biggest snowboarding medal hopefuls for the United States suffered a massive accident during a training run in Park City, Utah that nearly killed him. Almost paralyzed and suffering from a severe brain trauma – both of which require over a full year of intense physical, psychological, and cognitive therapy – Pearce pushes himself as hard as possible to make a speedy recovery. However, unlike most athletes coming back from an injury, Pearce absolutely can’t suffer from another blow to the head no matter how slight, and his friends, family, and doctors are tasked with keeping him off his board, no matter how hard he protests or how frustrated he becomes.
Walker (an Oscar nominee for Waste Land in 2011) makes sure all of her bases are covered, and does so in fine form. Initially, she sets the film up as a look strictly into the life and rivalries of Pearce before his accident, profiling a man who was just starting to come into his own thanks to a yearlong rivalry with former friend-turned-bitter rival (and snowboarding poster boy) Shaun White. Through this rivalry the sport gets looked at as one where athletes with the means and the money that White possesses can stack the odds in their favour like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. (Admittedly, and although he appears as a game interview subject, it’s kind of nice to watch the ubiquitous and grandstanding White get taken down a few pegs.)
During Kevin’s recovery, however, Walker’s film adds two more key elements beyond just looking the inner workings of a professional daredevil. The Crash Reel unexpectedly becomes a family drama, as the people around Kevin – both blood related and extended brothers and sisters in arms – clash with a young man who can’t yet accept that his career is over regardless of how many outside well wishers egg him on to get back into competing. He’s at odds with his closest friends, his parents, his girlfriend, and even his brother David, a young man with Down Syndrome who is himself an athlete in the Special Olympics as a skier. These moments glimpse something rarely seen in more superficial sports documentaries. It shows that an athlete is more than just his passions, but a human being capable of flawed reasoning that needs to be tempered by love, understanding, and sometimes a healthy dose of regret at the hands of a solid support system.
The other film that Walker juggles, especially once Kevin finally realizes he may never flourish at the level he once competed at, is a broader look at how these “extreme sports” are unnecessarily looked down up and treated as a joke even by its biggest proponents and promoters. Athletes like Kevin, Shaun, and many others thrive predominantly off endorsement deals from advertisers and their winnings. Despite being in a sport that has Olympic status, they are quite often uninsurable or unable to pay for their medical bills, and if they get hurt as badly as Kevin does, they could also be financially ruined even if they survive a tragic mishap. This builds to a final crushing twist for someone featured in the film, and underlines that snowboarding is a sport that people often give their lives to in order to entertain people and gain acclaim, but one that unlike major sports gets treated like less of a big deal outside of the competitive arena.
Walker was lucky enough to follow around Pearce for a few years before completing the film (as well as having access to a wealth of pre-existing footage), and when chronicling a sport as ever changing as snowboarding, I doubt it could be done any other way and have it be just as impactful. The great white whale of tricks for Pearce that nearly cost him his life – The Double McTwist 1260 – has seemingly become irrelevant the first time he’s able to get back out and see firsthand what his peers are trying to do. In only a year away he becomes a man left behind by his greatest love. He might not have lost his life, but he’s fighting to hang onto the one thing that still gives his life meaning. It’s as crushing to behold as a romantic breakup unfolding in front of you and certainly no less awkward. Walker’s work honours the athletes, the sport, and their heartbreaks by viewing a fascinating macrocosm of an underappreciated world through the eyes of one man desperate to rejoin it.