Thrills, spills … and the rest of the story

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
"Crash Reel"
Oliver Kurzemann |

Lucy Walker is a bit of a skier.

“Not a particularly good one,” she said.

And she is much harsher in her assessment of the enormous amount of video footage that has been produced surrounding the exploits of downhillers far better than she is.

“As a filmmaker, I find them unwatchable,” she said by phone from Bowen Island, a few miles off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. “The visuals are great; the feats are great. But the stories are like a crime against humanity. They’re not constructed in a way I like to construct films. It’s trick, trick, trick. I love the tricks and the mountains, but as a film it comes from a different place. I’m all about story.”

When Walker accepted an invitation to serve as a mentor at a 2010 retreat for top action-sports athletes, the primary purpose was to show her Oscar-nominated film “Waste Land.” The documentary, about garbage pickers in Brazil turning trash into valuable and esteem-raising art, was meant to inspire the athletes to use their status for social good. But Walker also was thinking there might be a story to be found in the action-sports realm — her kind of story, something deeper than the standard thrills-and-spills loops.

As soon as she met Kevin Pearce, she suspected she had her subject. Pearce had achieved stardom as a snowboarder. On one memorable occasion at the 2008 Winter X Games in Aspen, he became the first person to compete in three medal events in one day. He walked away from those games with two silver medals and one bronze. Walker saw more in Pearce than the professional success. He was part of a brotherhood of on-mountain athletes who made friendship a significant part of competition. Pearce came from a tight-knit Vermont family that included four brothers and a father, Simon, who is an internationally recognized glass artist. And Kevin had a certain quality that Walker thought would come across vividly on screen.

“My goal is to find these really rare souls,” said Walker, whose other films have focused on the escalating nuclear-arms race (“Countdown to Zero”) and Amish teenagers deciding whether to retain their traditions or follow the modern world (“Devil’s Playground”). “The power of the story is that Kevin isn’t afraid to share.”

“The Crash Reel,” Walker’s latest work, centers on a spill. On the final day of 2009, on a training run in a halfpipe in Park City, Utah, Pearce was practicing a jump called the cab double cork. The botched landing, caught on video and shown in “The Crash Reel,” doesn’t appear outrageous by the standards of big-mountain, backcountry ski films. But the other snowboarders witnessing it knew this one was trouble. Pearce hadn’t been able to get his hands in front of him to break his fall, and he took the entire impact with his face. Instantly, as he is taken away by an emergency medical crew, it is apparent that Pearce is in serious condition. He spends several months in the hospital, first coming out of a coma and then in a slow, uncertain recovery. When he leaves Craig Hospital in Denver, it is with a traumatic brain injury; his walk, his speech and his reactions are halting, and the chance of him returning to competitive sports seems nil.

True to Walker’s word, “The Crash Reel,” which shows Saturday and Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House, constructs the full story. A big part of it is about family, of how the Pearces devote themselves to Kevin’s recovery. This in itself is a layered facet of the story: In time, Kevin begins expressing a desire to start snowboarding again, an activity that, doctors warn him, would expose him to further brain damage. The Pearce family is wary about Kevin’s return to the ski trails; most vocal and poignant is his brother David, who has Down syndrome — and a heartfelt concern for Kevin’s well-being. (In yet another layer to the film, Kevin’s injury spurs David to consider the ramifications of his own medical condition.)

“Kevin is worried his family would hold him back. He felt he was in the right and they were in the wrong,” Walker said. “It touched a lot of really big life issues. It’s about risk and reward, how we decide to spend out lives. What’s important in life? What price do we pay? What happens when life deals you pitfalls? What happens when life turns on a dime? What is it to be lucky or unlucky in life?”

Walker got on board with the project a year and a half after Pearce’s injury, but to her, Pearce’s story hadn’t been nearly finished by then. “The Crash Reel” unfolds into the unknown, with even the director in the dark about the final chapters.

“Would it be a happy sports comeback, the cliche, like ‘Rocky’ in the halfpipe? Or was he going to die?” Walker said. “If he hits his head even slightly, it’s catastrophic.”

Even before “The Crash Reel” gets to the dramatic turning point in the Utah halfpipe, it has told a story not seen in the typical action film. The first act of the documentary goes inside professional snowboarding. The focus is on the intense rivalry — sometimes friendly, sometimes not — between Pearce and Shaun White. Walker exposes the contrasting personalities: Pearce is good-natured; White is generally described as a “machine.” We get a sense of the daily routine —travel, sponsorships, conditioning, camaraderie.

The privileges the athletes enjoyed came as a surprise. In the opening sequence, the snowboard community descends on Aspen but finds the Buttermilk halfpipe in unacceptable condition. Within a day, their sponsors have lined up an alternate plan, and the boarders are on their way to Utah. Another scene reveals the secret, extremely expensive halfpipe built exclusively for White. When Pearce recovers sufficiently from his injuries, he is pleased to learn that he owns a condo in ski country, bought while he was still competing.

For Walker, the heart of the story seems to lie in two places. She is happy that the film exposes the reality of traumatic brain injuries.

“I knew nothing about it — it’s an invisible injury. But they’re so common, the leading cause of death in people under 44,” she said.

Away from the abstract, Walker got to see how one person, extraordinary in some ways and typical in others, dealt with a brain injury.

“I got to see how it worked in Kevin’s life,” Walker said. “He had this real gift of sharing honestly what was going on. I didn’t realize how difficult it could be, what he was going through.”

The final act of “The Crash Reel” opens questions bigger than snowboarding and injuries. What happens to the life that has been irretrievably altered?

“Is he going to learn a new way to live, reinvent himself?” Walker said. “Human beings are really bad at that. We get stuck on the things we get stuck on. It’s hard to switch tracks.”

Walker believes she picked a good story to examine that issue with “The Crash Reel,” which has earned several awards, including Festival Favourite honors at South by Southwest. And she picked the right person in Pearce.

“He makes a really wonderful decision and finds new meaning in life,” she said. “He’s helping other people who are in a situation like his.

“He was having a lot of fun (as a snowboarder). He sees that as a selfish period of his life. He’s grown a lot since then. He’s got more important things to do in life.”

Activities & Events

See more