Films that exceed expectations come and go, leaving audiences properly grateful, if not for much. Then there’s a documentary like “The Crash Reel”—about a star athlete whose career was cut short by a critical brain injury—which goes flying past all the clichés and treacle-soaked heroics embedded in this theme to a wondrously hard-edge life all its own. No small achievement when you consider that it’s a life that draws virtually all of its power from the film’s singular portrait of family bonds.
The portrait is filled out by a remarkable two decades’ worth of footage of snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce and his friends and family. Everything in those pictures speaks to the passion he had for the sport—unlike any he’d found in schools and studying—for developing his skills at flips and spins on snowboards. He was young, barely into his teens, when he began to win one competition after another, and then one commercial sponsor after another. And finally, a surefire contender for membership on the U.S. Olympic team.
He was the kind of goal-driven athlete who never stopped training, and lived for the effort—though for all that bottomless ambition, he and his pack of snowboarder friends exuded a joyful innocence that’s captivating. It’s what makes for the seductive power of the first half of the film, along, that is, with stunning scenes of snowy landscapes and of daredevils flying up and down steep slopes on rickety-looking snowboards.
Still, when it comes to seductiveness the film (directed by Lucy Walker) offers nothing to equal the entire Pearce family of Vermont—Kevin’s father, Simon, a highly successful entrepreneur; his mother, Pia; and his three brothers. The youngest, David, is a riveting presence. He’s the family’s Down syndrome child, now a young man—urgent, full of passion for his adored athlete brother, the raw voice of anguish over Kevin’s accident that the other members of the family try to contain in themselves.
In its picture of the family constellation lies all of the film’s strength, all testimony to its ambition, its capacity to fascinate with a revelation, an unexpected digression from the drama’s main focus—namely, the plight of its central figure, Kevin, the beloved son and brother, whose hopes for his career are now gone. And that’s not the only loss he’ll have to confront. The film’s final quarter provides a phenomenally detailed exposition of the damaging effects—some seemingly subtle, most all too obvious—that come with the kind of brain injury that Kevin Pearce sustained.
Kevin’s father, Simon, reflects on his own inability to succeed at school—he was severely dyslexic—and on finding his self-regard and subsequent happiness in work. His own father had been wise enough to understand and had never opened a school report card. Mia, Kevin’s mother, recalls her initial fear—soon dispatched—that she might not be able to deal with a Down syndrome child. David, that child now nearly a man, reveals details of the unhappiness he feels when he thinks about his condition, a description impressive in its eloquence. Everybody here is, in one way or another, a central figure—which is to say quite a lot for this family picture.
That’s not to suggest that Kevin Pearce’s fate doesn’t loom large—his story is the core of this penetrating chronicle, never devoid of life or a capacity for surprise.