Following snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s life after traumatic brain injury, Lucy Walker’s documentary The Crash Reel sees a rising star come crashing down to earth.
Chasing Ice by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Twice Oscar-nominated for both her 2010 documentary on Brazilian photographer and artist Vik Muniz Waste Land and her documentary short about the Japanese tsunami of 2011 The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, Lucy Walker has a new focus on survival. And her latest film charts the fall and rise of snowboarder and US Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce, following his traumatic brain injury in 2009, his recuperation and his determination to return to competition snowboarding. It’s pieced together from broadcast footage, home videos, interviews and some cinéma vérité style sequences from inside the Pearce family home to make a slightly pell-mell documentary of extreme sports daredevilry with its graffiti-style fonts, fast and furious editing and intimate family anxiety. For this is no Dogtown And Z-Boys but rather a long hard look at life following a near-fatal accident, negotiating a new responsibility towards a put-upon family and a new meaning to life.
52 days before the Winter Games in Vancouver, US Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce is training in Aspen. With bad snow, Kevin and his boarding buddies head to Park City, Utah for a crisp pipe. Internationally, snow boarding The game is advancing at full tilt, with pipes pushed ever higher and audacious snowboarders pushing boundaries with new, ever more dangerous tricks. It’s Kevin’s first double-cork in months, following a broken leg, and he falls badly, suffering a massive head trauma, comatosed and confined to intensive care for 26 days. With his family’s support though, Kevin walks the slow road back to health, determined through physiotherapy and eye operations to return to competition snowboarding. Leaving hospital after three months, he continues to suffer from seizures, memory loss, distorted vision and despair, but after a spell as a snowboarding commentator, Kevin is determined to get back on the snow and find out if he can be again the man he once was.
Kevin was always a daredevil, climbing his highchair until he didn’t know how to get down. And years later, following a traumatic brain injury, coma, and months of physiotherapy, he still doesn’t know how to step down from his dreams of snowboarding glory. It takes over a year after the accident before Kevin is able to test his legs on the slopes, but with neither the same eyesight, reactions or devil-may-care lightness, it becomes clear quite quickly that while the mind may be strong, the body is weak. And when snow boarding is both your career and passion, it’s not easy to step away from the driving force that makes you you, and find a new purpose.
It’s a traumatic time for Kevin Pearce, but despite access-all-areas footage of hospital wards and family gatherings, Lucy Walker’s documentary never quite lifts the veil on Pearce’s emotional post-traumatic fall. The closest we come to an emotional climax in this adrenaline-fuelled, high-octane world of snowboarding is the final Thanksgiving dinner with his family where David, Kevin’s brother with Down syndrome, tearfully begs his brother not to compete again. It’s been hard for the family, nursing Kevin back from near-death, his other brother even giving up his job to see Kevin through physiotherapy. That he should want to risk subjecting them to that again, let alone his own life, is the carefully negotiated sore point in their family discussions, but for Kevin, it’s a question of identity. And it’s only when the pro snowboarder identifies a new calling, raising awareness and encouraging others with brain injuries that he’s able to accept his disability and leave the ghosts of the slopes behind. And in an enjoyable side twist, following his announcement, Kevin’s mother Pia turns to David on a six-pence, challenging him in turn to come to terms with his own hated condition.
With no insurance in place for extreme sports competitions and pressure from fans, sponsors and fellow tricksters, ever greater risks are placed on snowboarders, dirtbikers and skiers trying to up their game. For many it’s a way of life, returning to their weapon of choice even after one or two brain injuries – on a fatal collision course with death. Responsibility towards the family that have nursed them back to health is weighed in the balance against an almost addictive desire to get back that adrenaline kick that gives their lives meaning as well as a determination not to be defeated. They say the brave do not live for ever, but the cautious do not live at all. And although Lucy Walker’s film is at times awkward and clumsy, The Crash Reel ends with some sublime footage of snowboarding by night, finally granting us a glimpse of the sport’s graceful thrills that beckon so many of its brave participants into its reckless dance with death.
The Crash Reel is released on 4th October 2013 in the UK