Recently, a film featuring snowboarding received an unprecedented level of mainstream attention. No, it wasn’t Avalanche Sharks, but rather a stunning documentary about Kevin Pearce, which had wowed festival crowds and was garnering universally positive reviews. Kevin was at the apex of the sport when he was knocked unconscious in a Park City halfpipe, less than two months before the 2010 Winter Olympics. At the time he was considered a contender for the gold; suddenly he was fighting for his life.
The Crash Reel begins with a few shots of KP and the rest of the Frends crew – Mason Aguirre, Danny Davis, Jack & Luke Mitrani, Scotty Lago – living the dream as precociously talented teens who bounce between resorts by day and party by night. The tone lurches almost immediately, though, as the accident is shown in grisly full speed. Getting this out of the way before the opening credits is the first of several good choices by Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker; none of the film is overshadowed by waiting for ‘that moment’ to happen.
We then rewind to take a closer look at Kevin’s happy home life in Vermont, and his meteoric rise to the top. The archive footage (courtesy of Mack Dawg and Absinthe, among others) serves as a crib sheet for the newcomer, while reminding snowboard fans just how good Kevin was during his purple patch. A lot is made of his one-time rivalry with Shaun White who, after winning every pipe event in the Olympic year of 2006, suddenly found his dominance under threat the following season. Credit is due to Shaun for his participation, as it would have been clear from the start that he would be unlikely to come off well. Indeed, tales of his private pipes, non-disclosure agreements and sports-brat behaviour are unlikely to endear him to anyone previously unfamiliar with his story. In interviews he’s as media-savvy as ever, but does open up a little about his relationship with Kevin – as well as what it is that makes him want to win so badly.
Of course, as the title suggests, the film is really about the aftermath of that fateful day in 2009, which left Kevin with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The most gut-wrenching moments happen far from the Park City pipe, and put the accident itself in the shade. There are have been other docs that cover similar subject matter (such as the excellent Moving Forward), but this doesn't follow their ‘guy gets injured, guy gets better’ arc. Unfortunately for Kevin, there’s a lot more to his story.
Walker strikes a fine balance between the little victories enjoyed by the family during Kevin’s rehabilitation, and the looming, crushing sense of disappointment that he himself is unable to shake. Never mind the seizures, surgeries, therapy and medication – it’s watching the pro snowboard world motor on without him that’s the hardest to deal with. He doesn't just want to ride again; he wants to stomp that double cork.
The film is at its most interesting when purely focused on the Pearces, especially long-suffering mother Pia and older brothers Adam and David (none of whom want to see Kevin back in the halfpipe). At times, though, it pulls back to look at the wider world of modern extreme sports. It features a ‘crash reel’ of its own, collating some of the most horrific slams in the X-Games and elsewhere. It’s one of the few occasions that Walker touches on the questions of insurance, risk levels and culpability, obviously all relevant to Kevin’s situation. Wisely, she never wades in too deep – after all, that’d warrant a whole film in itself – but there's enough there to make it a major post-viewing topic of discussion. The film also doesn't shy away from pointing out that Kevin, when compared to some, was one of the lucky ones.
Equally bleak and inspiring, The Crash Reel is an uncompromising look at how everything can change in an instant. It explores what it's like to lose something as basic as 'feeling like yourself', and how the path back to the top might not be the one you would expect. Essential viewing.
The Crash Reel is on limited release in various UK cinemas in October and November. Visit thecrashreel.com and check local listings for more information. It will also be shown on Sky Atlantic in November as part of the documentary season.
Find out more about Kevin’s Love Your Brain project at kevinpearce.com