By Asantha Jayaweera
The rise and fall and rise again of Olympic Snowboarding hopeful Kevin Pearce is both horrifying and uplifting in equal measure. His journey to overcome a serious head trauma and desire to get back and ride again, is charted in this gripping documentary. It is less about snowboarding and more about a family’s struggle to protect their son from himself. It is a story of a young man begrudgingly coming to terms with an injury, and eventually embracing it. Touching, tear-jerking and darkly comic in places, this is the best kind of documentary; one rooted in the most human of emotions, unconditional love of a family for one of their own.
So, here’s the thing about The Crash Reel. Kevin Pearce, the main protagonist, is a little difficult to like. He is stubborn, driven, a little selfish, and that’s before his near-fatal head injury. Unsurprisingly he only gets more cantankerous and difficult through his subsequent rehab. We therefore find ourselves rooting not for him, but for his family. His thoughtful brothers, doting mother, his kind-hearted father, and most of all his brother David, who (has Down’s Syndrome and) steals the show almost single-handedly. Their round-the-family-dinner-table scenes offer pathos, warmth, and sensitivity, as well as some fairly straight-talking in trying to convince Kevin not to risk another potentially fatal head impact. It is handled delicately and without condescension, and all members prove themselves articulate, loving and intelligent.
This documentary charts Kevin Pearce’s rise from Olympic medal prospect and his rivalry with snowboarding legend Shaun White, to his horrendous traumatic head injury whilst training for the Olympics, subsequent rehab and desire to get back to pro competition. But don’t let this fool you into thinking it is a formulaic sports film. It subverts your expectations. Succeeding against the odds is literally not what the doctor ordered.
The ‘Crash Reel’ of the title is the term for a collection of major crashes and wipeouts, spliced together one after the other, and this is done quite effectively at one point during the film. The audience audibly wince and exclaim when seeing the footage. A side-plot of why half-pipes have gradually risen from 8ft to 22ft to help satisfy sponsors’ and fans’ appetite for real danger, and the lack of medical insurance for the athletes, is intriguing but under-powered, and is then entirely abandoned.
Instead, director Lucy Walker mines the oft-neglected but emotion-rich vein of the familial side of Kevin’s rehab and hugely risky return to the slopes against medical advice. This proves to be a sound editorial decision and where the film gets its heart from. His brothers and parents seeing him go from a seemingly invincible superstar on the cusp of Olympic glory, to a skeletal figure on the ICU and through a rocky rehab (problems with memory, attention, impatience, and double-vision all emerge and persist) is a hard watch at times. But rather like a Crash Reel, it is one you really cannot look away from. Horrifying and fascinating.
For all the glitz and glamour of the first third (which plays out like a 90s ESPN special, full of garish interviews with snowboarders who say “bro” a lot), the last two-thirds are by far the most powerful. Interspersed with poignant memories of fallen comrades, is Kevin’s journey to understand his limitations. Some of the most powerful scenes are in the quiet dignity of simply not doing something. It is Kevin’s change from unshakeable self-delusion to empowering acceptance that stands this apart from the crowd. And like the family featured within it, this film ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.
Crash 5 stars
The Crash Reel 4 stars
The Wedding Crashers 3 stars
The Crash Test Dummies 2 stars
Crash Bandicoot 1 star