Story of snowboarder Kevin Pearce's recovery from brain injury to debut at Sundance
This undated publicity photo released by the Sundance Institute shows a scene from the documentary film, 'The Crash Reel,' directed by Lucy Walker, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. (AP Photo/Sundance Institute, Dean Blotto Gray)
Pat Graham, The Associated Press
Published Friday, January 18, 2013 8:18AM EST
The camera zoomed out as snowboarder Kevin Pearce sank deeper into the leather rocking chair, his voice quivering with every word he whispered to his therapist.
Just when Pearce thought he was making progress from a traumatic brain injury he suffered during a frightful fall in the halfpipe three years ago, more bad news seemed to follow.
On this day, he found out he needed additional eye surgeries to correct his double vision. Downcast and dejected, he told his therapist, "It just feels like it's never ending. Will it never end?"
The camera closed in tight on his brother, Adam, who was sitting on the couch: A tear rolled down Adam's cheek as he listened to the sorrow of his younger sibling.
That's just one of the touching scenes in the film "The Crash Reel," a documentary about Kevin Pearce's return from his life-altering accident set to premiere on Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
Pearce has yet to see the nearly two-hour movie directed by British filmmaker Lucy Walker. He's heard through the grapevine the film is "tripping" and "rad" and "insane." But he wanted to hold off until he was with his family and a close-knit group of pro snowboarders who call themselves the "Frends" (there's no 'I' in friendship). They all will be on hand for the debut.
"This film is going to be unreal," Pearce said in an interview from his home in Carlsbad, Calif., shortly before travelling to Park City, Utah, for the festival. "I'm so psyched."
The first part of the movie chronicles the rise of Pearce, the up-and-coming snowboarder expected to give Shaun White his biggest challenge at the 2010 Vancouver Games. But on Dec. 31, 2009 -- just 49 days before the Olympics -- Pearce miscalculated a tricky manoeuvr during a training run in Park City and landed directly on his face.
From there, the film focuses his recovery, with his family playing an integral role in his rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, a Denver facility that specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
And finally, it centres on Pearce trying to make some sort of peace with his new life.
"What's so shocking about this material is to realize that in a split second life can change on a dime," said Walker, who had help financing the picture with assistance from HBO Documentary Films. "He didn't put his hand out -- that movement would've changed everything in his life. You can see that moment, but you can't take it back. I get very moved around that."
Walker became acquainted with Pearce's story soon after it happened. She was in Park City and noticed the town was covered in red "I ride with Kevin" stickers. They later met at a Nike function and started a conversation.
"My first thought was, 'What an amazing young man. What an incredible journey he's been on,"' Walker said. "My second thought was, 'Someone should make a film' and my third thought was, 'I'd love for it to be me."'
And so it would be, because from the moment Pearce met Walker, he felt a connection.
Walker has an extensive background in documentary films, telling stories ranging from Amish youths deciding if they should remain in or leave their community ("Devil's Playground") to blind Tibetan students climbing Everest ("Blindsight").
She certainly had enough footage for this project, given the popularity of Pearce. Walker tracked down tape of contests and training runs from all over the world.
"The action snowboarding community is so eye-popping and has this incredible wealth of material," she said. "It's incredibly cinematic."
Not only that, but she had a dashing young actor with wavy, brown hair and black-rimmed glasses for the leading role.
Kevin Pearce, the movie star. It has a nice ring.
Although, he'd rather be Kevin Pearce, the snowboarding star. But those days are over as he comes to realize in the film. He only reaches that point with the help of his family, who even have a fireside chat to determine how best to intervene and tell him he's not ready -- nor will he ever be ready -- to drop back into the halfpipe.
He thinks he is, though, returning to the slopes last year with a run at Breckenridge, Colo., with his "Frends" entourage.
Later, he competed in a banked slalom event -- on a slope, not in a halfpipe -- without his family's knowledge. He meandered through the tricky course and said after finishing, "My snowboarding is bad right now. I was bummed out. I'm not good enough and not in the place I need to be to do really well."
These days, he simply rides for fun in powder.
Although Pearce has yet to see the film, he's checked out the footage of his fall. He caught it online when it was briefly posted, before it was taken down.
"I was like, 'That was gnarly,"' said Pearce, who will serve as an analyst at the Winter X Games next week in Aspen. "To the average person, you really can't tell how bad it is."
It definitely comes across in the film, especially after factoring in the chain of events leading up to the crash.
He and his buddies were originally going to snowboard in Aspen that week, but changed their minds because the halfpipe wasn't up to their satisfaction. They packed up the truck and went to Park City.
On the morning of the accident, Pearce rode his stationary bike to get ready and commented to the camera, "Today is only going to continue to get better."
Standing at the top of the halfpipe, Pearce went rock, paper, scissors with good friend Luke Mitrani to see who went first. Pearce lost and moments later over-rotated on his run and badly crashed.
"I started hollering for ski patrol, 'Hey, we're going to need a helicopter up here," Olympic bronze medallist Scotty Lago said in the documentary.
An intense moment.
Then again, this movie was filled with stirring scenes:
-- Pearce being asked by a fan if he could take White and good-naturedly replying, "I'll get back at it soon and take him down."
-- Coming out of a surgery filled with panic, only to instantly calm down once he grasped his mom's hand.
-- Sarah Burke recounting her injuries while riding in a car with her husband, Rory Bushfield. Burke died in a training accident last year in the same Utah halfpipe where Pearce was hurt.
-- His mom giving him a hug and crying before he took his first run after the accident.
-- Pearce's dad reaching for his hand before Thanksgiving dinner.
-- His brother David, who has Down Syndrome, pleading with Kevin never to snowboard again because he doesn't want to lose him.
"That's the wonderful thing about a documentary -- you get a really intimate look," Walker said. "I think a lot of people will be very moved and inspired by this film."