The Crash Reel is an intense, morally unresolved sports documentary that follows U.S. Champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce, a driven, charismatic young man who suffered massive head trauma in a terrifying crash out on the slopes of Park City, Utah while training for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Kevin somehow lived after many close calls in the hospital, though with subtly diminished mental faculties that tend to reveal themselves with disconcerting suddenness. Upon more or less gaining his physical composure again, Kevin wastes no time or pretense: He wants to get back out on the slopes to compete against rival Shaun White.
Kevin’s story obviously resembles the broad strokes of countless sports-movie narratives, and so you can be forgiven for assuming that director Lucy Walker has chosen to document the snowboarder’s life for its compliance to a Rocky formula of a crash followed by a transcendent new rise and victory. But instead, Walker has cannily chosen Kevin to reveal the fallacy of such stories, and to equate his hunger to return to the slopes, a hunger that’s triggered partially by a questionable new mental capacity, with the insanity of the commercialized sports world in general, which clearly views the odd athletic death here or there as a necessary loss that’s been factored into an otherwise infallible business model. Another incident could kill Kevin or turn him into a vegetable, but he’s busy fretting over the contract that stipulates which stickers are to be prominently displayed on his helmet.
Yet, Walker isn’t a scold, because she also understands that a need to self-actualize, and to constantly prove yourself over and over again to the vaguely defined audience of your mind, is part of the unspoken social agreement of living as a citizen in a first-world society. Kevin’s confidence and work ethic are admirably steely, but his considerable courage is inseparable from an egotistical death wish—and it’s this element that understandably inspires his family to gently chafe at his quest to get back on the board. Every member of Kevin’s family is as unique and commanding as he is, particularly his brother David, who hates himself for his Down syndrome and sees in his brother a hero who’s turned toward a perverse addiction. David never quite says this, but it clearly offends him that Kevin would risk the mental faculties he takes for granted, and why wouldn’t it? David, through want, has learned of this preciousness that Kevin refuses to acknowledge in his risky campaigns. Walker never entirely decides on a through line, as there’s enough undeveloped thematics floating around in this film for five more docs, but she compellingly captures a family wrestling mightily with the riddles and contradictions of a culture that promotes achievement at all costs with little thought as to what that actually means.