Just as snowboarding was cobbled together from elements of skiing, skateboarding, and surfing, the new snowboarding documentary First Descent follows closely in the footsteps of the hit skateboarding documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys and the surfing opus Riding Giants, both directed by skateboarding pioneer Stacy Peralta. All three films serve a dual audience, offering an avalanche of totally gnarly x-treme sports action for die-hard aficionados, and a brisk Cliffs Notes history of the sport for curious outsiders.
First Descent, Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison's rapturous ode to snowboarding, follows three parallel threads. In the first, several generations of snowboarding hotshots join forces to tackle some of the biggest mountains in Alaska. The second strand offers brief histories of the participating shredders, while the third provides a crash course in the origins, history, and evolution of snowboarding, touching on the sport's growing influence, its inclusion in the Olympics, the importance of the X Games, and the sport's massive popularity in Japan, where revered snowboarders perform for tens of thousands of cheering fans in exhibitions filled with pyrotechnics and flashy production values.
Of the snowboarders profiled, two stand out. Bearded, rapping, middle-aged Flea look-alike Shawn Farmer is a grizzled veteran as renowned for his hard-partying ways and rebellious attitude as for his snowboarding skills. If Farmer represents snowboarding's anarchic, punk-rock past, Shaun White represents its lucrative, limitless future. While still a teenager, the goofy-looking White became one of the sport's marquee names, racking up a level of fame and fortune that would transform most teens into assistant-abusing, coke-snorting, model-dating tyrants. Yet White seems remarkably down-to-earth, unaffected by celebrity and passionately devoted to his craft.
First Descent entertainingly captures the camaraderie and spirit of competition among the affable boarders as they battle nature in the form of imposing mountains, regular avalanches, and jagged rock formations. Death seems to lurk around every corner, yet the boarders tackle their fears head-on, offering audiences plenty of jaw-dropping "oh shit" moments as they glide elegantly down impossibly steep and jagged terrain. First Descent may ultimately be uninterested in analyzing the consequences of the sport's exponential growth, but that's probably because the film itself is a product of snowboarding's embrace by the mainstream, and an engaging, zippy one at that.