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Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel (2013) begins with high energy in its subject snowboarder Kevin Pearce. He and his friends throw their energy into practicing their tricks, first in Aspen and then in Park City, in preparation for a possible Olympic competition. Fast music accompanies them.
Then, on the pipe a move goes wrong, the music stops, and Kevin falls, hitting his head. In those few seconds the life of this successful snowboarder changes forever as a result of a traumatic brain injury.
The Crash Reel then steps back to show Kevin’s life and career before the fall. Impressive footage shows him reaching new heights and speeds while attempting different tricks. It shows him competing as a child and teenager, taking home prizes and trading prize places with Shaun White in some competitions. Home video footage shows him climbing everything as a young child. All this footage builds back up to the accident.
Walker then weaves interviews with friends, family, medical experts, and extreme sport pros as we follow Kevin through his recovery. His goal is to get back on the board, even though he faces challenges with memory loss, seizures, double-vision, and depression. His doctors also warn him against it, as another injury could impair him even further or, worse, kill him. His family further discourages him from it as they fear his safety and another long recovery.
Still wanting to put the injury behind him, Kevin gets back on the board and even enters a competition, faring poorly. When hanging out with snowboarder friends, he attempts but cannot execute a move he used to complete effortlessly in the past.
While The Crash Reel focuses mostly on Kevin, Walker also raises questions about brain injuries, insurance, and extreme sports. Near the end of the documentary, Kevin meets Trevor White, who suffered two traumatic brain injuries and shows worse outcomes than Kevin. Another even sadder sequence shows Sarah Burke, who died from her injuries and incurred medical bills of more than half a million dollars. Several extreme athletes recount their injuries and surgeries while raising the question of the extreme sports’ entertainment value at the risk of athletes’ safety. No industry professionals outside the athletes address these concerns, however.
After a long struggle, Kevin realizes, “I’m not getting past this brain injury. It’s not going anywhere.” He redirects his energies into speaking about traumatic brain injuries with the hopes his story inspires and informs others.
Walker’s documentary offers an intimate portrait of Kevin’s struggle to find a new purpose in life after snowboarding while living with the effects of the injury. It carefully balances the sympathetic with the critical. Overall, The Crash Reel offers the sense that Kevin was an amazing person before the injury, and reaffirms that point throughout.