If you love extreme sports — and winter sports in particular — The Crash Reel from HBO documentaries is a movie you must see.
The story follows Kevin Pearce, who in 2009 was 22 years old and one of the world’s top halfpipe riders. Like the well-known Shaun White, he was performing incredible acrobatics in the air, and was a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Then Pearce suffered severe traumatic brain injury during a training accident in Park City, Utah. He landed on his head during a failed trick, and his whole world changed. As White went on to win the gold medal, Pearce struggled to recover, and that journey is captured in filmmaker Lucy Walker’s documentary The Crash Reel, which opened December 13th and has made the Oscar shortlist for this year. The movie follows Pearce’s tight-knit Vermont family as they go through the intensive process of trying to rehabilitate him and help him rebuild his permanently damaged life. Kevin’s determination and the tireless support of family and friends keep him focused on recovery, but when he insists returning to the sport he loved — and that almost killed him — his family objects. As an elite athlete, Kevin was a professional risk taker, but as a brain-injury survivor, his skills were now impaired, and even a small blow to the head could kill him.
It sounds like the set up for a major Hollywood movie — think Ron Howard’s racing film RUSH from 2013 as an example. But this is more than a movie about a young athlete overcoming the obstacles in his path so he can continue living his dream. It’s the story about a loving family, and how that love can be compassionate and yet feel cruel at times — on both sides. It’s the story of Pearce’s brother who has Down syndrome, their tight relationship, and how the brother can say the things everyone else in the family is tiptoeing around. It’s also about the sport itself, the risks these adrenaline-fueled athletes take on in order to gain sponsorship, score gold, or be seen has holding value in this competitive world.
Like most really good documentaries, there isn’t an “answer” to this story, or some tight ending. Instead, it forces one to look at his own role in this saga — because we all do play a role in Pearce’s story. Make no mistake of that. Any time we lift up one of these young athletes with attention, accolades and money, we push them to push their bodies and souls past what any normal human can do. And when they fall, either figuratively or literally, we play a role in that moment as well. We normally shake our heads and say whatever happened is a tragedy, then turn the channel and move onto something else so as to forget the pain, suffering and loss. But The Crash Reel forces us to pay attention, to take note of our role. It inspires great thought and conversion, and for that everyone needs to really see this film.