I remember seeing skateboarder Jake Brown’s disastrous fall at the 2007 X Games live as it happened on television. After landing a 720, he flew up the side of another ramp and launched 45 feet into the air without his board.
For an unendurable three seconds, Brown desperately flailed in the air as the cameras and the crowd watched helplessly, waiting for gravity to do its horrifying, unpitying job. Amazingly, Brown was able to walk away from the crash with his life – in addition to a shopping cart of fractures and bruises – and come back two years later.
That’s the kind of comeback story sports – including football – want to tell and fans want to hear. But unfortunately, that’s not the story Kevin Pearce has to tell in "The Crash Reel," Lucy Walker’s terrific and urgent documentary. His is a comeback story without the comeback. And it’s tragically becoming more common as the demands – from the sport, the fans and the athletes themselves – escalate in risk, leaving many healed but irreparably damaged.
The film opens like almost any extreme sports documentary that you can find on YouTube. A bunch of energetic, fun-loving friends – led by Pearce, an Olympic hopeful and growing snowboard rival to Shaun White – are travelling around the country, fooling around, pranking each other and looking for quality half-pipes to test out their tricks. Then, in a split-second, everything changes.
While attempting a difficult snowboard trick in Park City in 2009, Pearce lands face first on the hard, frigid half-pipe. He suffers massive brain trauma that leaves him in the hospital, barely able to speak and starring with empty eyes at his concerned family and friends. After months of rehabilitation, Pearce is back on his feet but not quite the same. His brain is still rattled, struggling with reflexes, memory and emotional stability.
Even so, Pearce eagerly wants to get back out on his board and resume the once-promising career that was so suddenly interrupted (in what sounds like a plotline for a snowboarding version of "Rush," he sees White winning more medals with the double cork, the move he wrecked himself on).
His family, including his brother David who struggles with his Down Syndrome, tearfully attempts to talk him down, fixated on the doctors’ warnings that another crash or hit to the head could cause even worse damage or possibly death.
The intersection of sports and brain injuries has certainly had its fair share of airtime in the past half decade. "The Crash Reel" stands out by telling Pearce’s story and tackling the wide-reaching issue with an incredible sense of intimacy. Walker’s camera is given incredible access to Kevin and his family, capturing moments both frustrating and fun.
During a series of meals, for instance, the Pearce family discusses with Kevin whether or not he should get back on the board. No one ever raises their voices during these interventions, but the strikingly real stakes and emotions are still palpably high. It’s very powerful and touching material, honestly hitting on what it means to be responsible for your family and how hard it can be to accept the lives we are given.
Though they’re very personal moments, these discussions clearly aren’t isolated to just Kevin and the Pearce family. Kevin meets several others struggling with brain injuries, including one who ran over his brother in a golf cart without a care and can barely keep up in regular conversation. An extended compilation of crashes near the middle of the film –combined with a brief but moving tribute to skier Sarah Burke, who died in early 2012 – also shows how dangerous these sports have become in their quest to go bigger and faster.
It’s a quiet epidemic, and many – like Kevin – get so addicted to the rush that they don’t realize it, or at least don’t think it could happen to them.
Then again, it’s easy to see why. Amidst all of the personal and widespread issues "The Crash Reel" attempts to weave into the story (which amazingly only gets a bit long near the very end), it never loses sight of the thrill and the beauty of snowboarding. The footage has an exhilarating majesty to it, with the snowboarders flying through the air with grace and a precise freedom. It respects the sport while acknowledging its considerable risks.
At no point is this clearer then during the opening and closing credits (oddly enough). Both quietly show snowboarders doing their thing, skimming from the pristine white snow to the dark night air. In the opening, the athletes glow white like the snow. It’s exciting and beautiful yet haunting, like watching ghosts glide across the snow.
The 100 minutes in between the credits are pretty great too.
"The Crash Reel": ***1/2
"The Crash Reel" is currently available to HBO Go subscribers.
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