The subject of The Crash Reel is freestyle snowboarding, a sport that thrives on raising its own stakes. Half-pipes that might have been eight feet tall in the early years of competition have been overtaken by “superpipes” with walls 22 feet high, and snowboarders use them to launch ever more ambitious and life-threatening tricks. The Crash Reel follows a similar pattern, with director Lucy Walker steadily raising the stakes of her story. It starts as a rivalry tale: On one side is Kevin Pearce, a grinning, mop-headed scamp whose affability makes him an appealing foil for Shaun White, the sport’s colder, more corporate icon. While Pearce always travels with his group of “Frends” (there’s no “I” in “Frends,” see), White is focused and private—he makes his girlfriend sign a non-disclosure agreement so she won’t reveal any of the new tricks he’s developing. It’s a decent setup for a sports movie, but this clash of personalities gives way to a tale of broader scope when a half-pipe accident sidelines Pearce with a debilitating brain injury.
From that point, The Crash Reel is about a kid who founded his identity on defying death and struggles to reorient himself when death defies him. As Pearce’s rehabilitation stretches to two years and beyond, his dream of returning to competitive snowboarding grows more distant, yet also more intense. His formerly bright-eyed visage becomes a mask of loneliness as family, friends, and doctors tell him that he’ll never recapture the thrills that used to give him purpose. While there is an actual “crash reel” in the film, the title speaks more to Pearce’s interminable sense of reeling. Walker shrewdly invites viewers to share in Pearce’s resolve during the early scenes of his recovery, and there’s plenty of forward-gazing optimism as Pearce walks, talks, and moves around again. The film sets up this burst of hope so that the audience can feel the long encroachment of despair that comes next. This new reality confounds the former superstar, and he lashes out, telling his family that they simply lack “faith” in him when they urge him to stay off the slopes.
The Crash Reel finds a moving parallel to Pearce’s story in his brother, David, who has Down syndrome. David claims to “hate” his disability and is haunted by the prospect that Pearce might suffer another injury and end up severely disabled or dead. Walker is careful not to exploit or overuse David’s condition for the purposes of Pearce’s story, but she keeps returning to him because David addresses Pearce with a blunt eloquence—and from a certain position of authority that the rest of Pearce’s inner circle can’t match.
The film also applies a deft touch as it addresses the morality of violent sports, like snowboarding and football, that entertain the many who watch while endangering the few who play. Rather than cast the athletes as pure victims, Walker acknowledges their agency, depicting them as prideful competitors who choose to risk their well-being—or even insist on doing so, as Pearce does. Yet The Crash Reel doesn’t lionize the athletes, either, as their human fallibility is a central focus. For much of the film, Pearce can’t perceive his limits, so he must be guided by loved ones who can. The film implies that this kind of counterbalance would be more effective if it were in place before the terrible injuries occur (a truth that Pearce’s father acknowledges with regret). Instead, sports like freestyle snowboarding are governed by sponsors and media who love the marketing appeal of outsized peril. Extraordinary athletes like Kevin Pearce need an extraordinary support system, and they rarely have it. Instead, they play with their lives in an industry that lets them down and leaves them reeling.