Director Lucy Walker‘s The Crash Reel gives audiences a front row seat to some of the most death-defying snowboarding tricks from the world’s top snowboarders, but does so along with an unflinching look at what can happen when the smallest thing goes wrong. Professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce was at the top of his game back in 2009, consistently beating out fellow snowboarder Shaun White at competitions, and was poised to become the newest member of the U.S. Olympic team. After hearing that White had created a private course to train on, Pearce decides to do the same, but unlike White, he invites all his friends and join in on the fun. What starts out as a carefree trip quickly turns tragic when a trick gone wrong has Pearce landing face first off a half-pipe, and his friends scrambling to get him help.
After falling into a coma, friends and family worry that the Pearce who wakes up will not be the same person they know and love. But Pearce is still full of the same fire and determination that made him such a great athlete. (Just now with shorter hair.) However it quickly becomes clear (and concerning) that Pearce’s goal post-Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is not to simply get better, it is to get back on his board.
Walker showcases an impressive ability to create real intimacy between the camera and those it is capturing by clearly having become a part of Pearce’s inner circle. Pearce comes from an incredibly closeknit family and Walker’s direct access makes you feel like an adopted member of their clan, tearing up when they do during therapy sessions and having family discussions over the dinner table.
The first half of The Crash Reel is full of energy and movement, thanks to specially shot action footage from cinematographer Nick Higgins set to a rocking soundtrack from artists such as M83, The Chemical Brothers, and The Hives. The music video atmosphere created early on in the film is in stark contrast to the quiet reflection that happens as the film rolls into its second half. Full of reflection and frustration (with the tone of the music changing to more mellow tracks from Bon Iver and Sigur Ros) these differing halves succeed in showing the different phases of Pearce’s life, phases he may not be able to fully accept.
The Crash Reel only loses its footing when it tries to force connections or focuses on stories unrelated to Pearce. Pearce’s brother David has Down syndrome and the film appears to encroach on unnatural territory when it attemps to compare the two brothers’ very different experiences in an attempt to show how Pearce needs to accept his new life. Moreover, while Pearce is certainly not the only person in his sport to get seriously injured, the additional stories that were also included felt unnecessary. The film is much more compelling when Pearce is interacting with fellow patients or TBI survivors because it features Pearce as he begins to understand not only how lucky he is, but how he should use his second chance at life to help others, not just himself.
The Crash Wheel makes a valiant effort to bring wider awareness to some of the bigger issues surrounding these extreme sports, but the film is strongest when it is simply Pearce’s story. While it’s easily understandable why an ambitious thrillseeker like Pearce would want to just move past his accident and get back to his old life, The Crash Reel wisely takes us through his much more poignant process of acceptance rather than flashing forward to an easily constructed “happy ending.”
The Upside: Important look at the effect of extreme sports; intimate “peak behind the curtain” of what it means to be a recovering athlete; fantastic soundtrack keeps things moving; vibrant footage makes you feel like you are a part of the game and not just passively watching it.
The Downside: Forced connection between Pearce and his brother David’s struggles; unnecessary inclusion of other athlete’s stories and experiences.
On the Side: The Crash Reel has inspired the #LoveYourBrain (#LYB) campaign to inspire awareness and education about TBI and hopefully reduce the staggering 1.7 million people (in America alone!) who have suffered from such an injury.