The Crash Reel is a horrifically engaging documentary. The sweet-spirited 18-year-old with the blond hair and all-American grin turns over the wrong way in a high snowboarding somersault, during pre-Olympics training, and lands on his face. Our stomachs turn over simultaneously; our hearts land in the snow with the same synchronous thud. Kevin Pearce damaged his brain, eyes, face, co-ordination … He might not walk. He might not live. As for a return to snow sports, forget it.
Director Lucy Walker (Blindsight, Countdown to Zero) is good at adversity made heroic or apocalyptic. She is a fly, here, on every available wall. The hospital walls. The walls of the Pearce dining room where the Thanksgiving dinner becomes an annual “intervention”, the family imploring – tears from the Down’s Syndrome brother, anguish of pretended calm from everyone else – the slow-recovering but itchy Kevin not to snowboard again. And of course the walls of the training slopes and “half-pipes”: those ramparts of snow rearing into a pitiless sky. The film captures the horror and danger and the druggy thrill. We understand why these kids want their “highs” even when the cost of coming low can be fatal.
Walker, early, makes everything contagiously snappy. Names are crayon-scrawled with arrows, helpfully, on training or competing footage; family photos and home movies are passed before our eyes like scrapbook pages. The pace slows when it needs to. For the harrowing, human hospital scenes; for the home scenes. There is kindly, Anglo-Irish, glass-blowing dad; loving, stoical mom, ageing almost by the frame; ex-snowboarding older brother whom Kevin beat to the trophies but who now stays by his side, devotedly, during convalescence. Human beings do ridiculous, tragic, self-destructive things. Amazingly other human beings are around to care. The Crash Reel is honest at the punch, though, about the battle between others’ compassion – which can have its own self-interest – and the individual’s yen to adventure, which doesn’t necessarily abdicate when the mental or physical prowess for it does.