Crash Reel is not a film that will be shown by NBC during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The remarkable documentary plainly, candidly and beautifully tells the story about Kevin Pearce, a top snowboarder and probably Shaun White's biggest (and only?) rival—that is, until his accident.
The story is fairly well-known, but even if you don't follow snowboarding, extreme sports or the Olympics, there are no spoiler alerts here, as the film's first ten minutes build up to the accident: A month before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Pearce crashed during a routine practice, causing a massive cerebral concussion. In a sport and an era where every moment and move is filmed, these events—and the days leading up to the accident are incredibly well documented, with candid footage of the affable Pearce and stunned interviews with his friends immediately following the accident.
The remainder of the movie fills in the backstory, about Pearce's childhood in Vermont and the growing sport of snowboarding, and then chronicles the accident's aftermath on his brain, personality, and family, and his slow attempt at rehabilitation.
Although the footage is exciting—patching together homemade videos and X-Game scenes—ultimately, Crash Reel isn't specifically about snowboarding; it is about growing up, family about the very real impacts of head injuries, told through Pearce's own story, as well as several other skiers and snowboarders. Surprisingly, it is both a frightening film about sports' dangers and an uplifting story, although not in a Disney comeback ending sort of way.
And, it is arguably the best sports documentary in the past decade. (The film is currently on the short list for an Academy Award, along with another sports film, The Armstrong Lie; the final nominees will be announced this Thursday.) Two years ago, the remarkably emotional and exciting Undefeated—a documentary about a no-nonsense white coach at a tough black high school in Memphis—deservedly won an Oscar for Best Documentary (Netflix it now!). That movie does reach past the football field—and tells an important story about racial tensions and America's unfair social stratifications. But, like Hoop Dreams twenty years before, the narrative thrust remained largely on the team's season. Likewise, 2005's Murderball, an Academy Award nominee, is driven by the very grit, toughness and character of a group of quadriplegics playing wheelchair rugby, rather than larger social issues.
While Pearce's story is compelling, what makes this documentary especially captivating is that director Lucy Walker (whose short documentary The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom was nominated for an Oscar last) creates a tender, yet unsentimental film. Halfway into the movie, after Pearce has been released from months of rehab—and determined to return to snowboarding—he sits down for Thanksgiving dinner with his brothers and parents. At a languid pace, so very different from the ESPN split-second editing, the camera simply hovers in the dining room and patiently records the tense, but loving standoff with his family who do not want him to risk his life. Most emotionally gut-wrenching is his older brother, David, who has Down's Syndrome. David is a remarkable addition to the movie, managed subtly, barely touching on the obvious parallels; he is the most frank and outwardly emotional about his brother's accident. "One," he tells his younger brother at the Thanksgiving dinner, "I don't want to see you dead. Two, I don't want to see you in a wheelchair."
But what especially alluring and authentic about Crash Reel is that it restrains from any out and out preachiness. Instead there is empathy and understanding about why Pearce wants to return to snowboarding, in spite of its risks—and his merry band of snowboarding friends, some of the best in the world, including interviews with Kevin's former rival, Shaun White, add weight to this argument. In the post-Michael Moore era, when documentaries often depart from their journalist intentions to drive home a point, Crash Reel shows more than tells. And the story it shows is a remarkably nuanced, beautiful and candid.
Dir. Lucy Walker
Tin Pan Theater