“The Crash Reel” is a documentary about the American snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce, who suffered a near-fatal brain injury after falling off his board on the slopes of Park City, Utah, in December 2009. The title, however, doesn’t quite do justice to the film, which is directed by two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker and will debut on HBO on July 15.
This is no mere collection of crash footage from winter action sports. “The Crash Reel,” which won recognition at the Sundance and South By Southwest film festivals, is a moving portrait of a close-knit family forced to cope with a young man’s life-altering injury.
Pearce was riding high in the months leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He won several major competitions and the legendary snowboarder Shaun White – formerly a good friend – became more of a frienemy as Pearce challenged his superiority in the sport.
Pearce’s life off the slopes seemed almost perfect, also. He hung out with a group of buddies who called themselves the “frends,” because there is no “i” in friendship, they said. Pearce and his family lived in a large house in Vermont, surrounded by acres of idyllic scenery. His father, Simon Pearce, is an accomplished glass and pottery artisan. Kevin’s mother, Pia, is a strong and nurturing matriarch. Two of Kevin’s brothers, Adam and Andrew, are also snowboarders while their brother David – who has Down syndrome – is a medal-winner from the Special Olympics.
While Kevin’s travails are the focus of the film, David and Pia steal many of the scenes. David talks in interviews about his condition, about which he says, “I sometimes call it Up syndrome because I’m a very positive person.” But there are times when he is frustrated, he says, and wishes he didn’t have to live with the limitations he experiences.
The other family members listen to David a lot, particularly when he speaks from the heart about his emotions after Kevin’s accident and the risks of snowboarding.
Much of what the family experiences emotionally after Kevin gets hurt can be read on the face of Pia, the mom. After Kevin’s fall in Park City, the hospital there called to ask the family permission to do a certain medical procedure.
“I didn’t even know what that was,” Pia says, her voice starting to choke at the memory.
Pearce’s “frends” rallied around him after his injury. Their descriptions of watching him fall in Utah, then get airlifted out, make for compelling video, as does the footage of the accident itself.
One of the remarkable aspects of this film is how much of Pearce’s life has been recorded on film and videotape. From his earliest steps at home when he was a daredevil toddler, to his snowboarding career, to much of his rehab, meetings with doctors and therapists, to emotional discussions at the Pearce family dinner table, we get an all-access video pass to Kevin’s life. The filmmakers used video from 232 sources to make “The Crash Reel,” according to HBO. Even in this age of Go Pro cameras that allow extreme-sport athletes to film their every move, the amount of video here is extreme. It is also what makes this film so much more compelling than so-called sports documentaries that are nothing more than a series of talking-head interviews.
Pearce was in a coma immediately after his crash. After months of recovery and rehabilitation, he regained most of his motor skills. He then started longing to return to the thrills of snowboarding. Doctors explained to Pearce the serious risks of him attempting to get back on the snowboard, an activity in which falling is inevitable. Heart-to-heart talks with his family followed.
“I don’t want you to die,” his brother David says point-blank.
After pleading their case, the Pearces finally leave it up to Kevin about whether he should snowboard again. Acknowledging that his judgment might be impaired by the brain injury he suffered, Pearce decides he must give it a try. He returns to a mountain with his friends and does some fairly simple maneuvers. To the great relief of his family, Pearce comes to realize that he no longer has what it takes to be a competitive snowboarder. With a new sense of self-acceptance, Pearce becomes a motivational speaker and advocate for brain-trauma sufferers.
Even if you don’t know a snowboard from a 2-by-4, “The Crash Reel” may be one of the best things you’ll see on TV all summer.
“The Crash Reel” will debut at 9 p.m. July 15, then have several more air dates in July and August on HBO and HBO2.
• Fox Sports 1, the new national cable sports network that will launch Aug. 17, has signed Bill Raftery as lead analyst for its Big East basketball coverage, where he will team with Gus Johnson. Raftery will continue his basketball duties for CBS.
• A clue we have reached the summer silly season: ESPN will air an ESPY Award nomination show at 8 p.m. Monday on ESPN2. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are the hosts. The ESPY Award broadcast will be 9 p.m. July 17 on ESPN.
• Eight Buffalo Bisons games will be carried on Toronto radio station Sportsnet 590 The Fan, beginning with Monday’s date at Charlotte. The Bisons’ broadcasts with Ben Wagner and Duke McGuire will be simulcast on the Toronto sports station. Other Bisons dates on The Fan’s calendar: July 6, 11, 18, 20, 27; Aug. 19 and 31.