'I have a disability called Down syndrome. But some people call it Up syndrome because I am an up kind of guy.'
Snowboarder Kevin Pearce was poised to be the only athlete who had a chance at usurping superstar Shaun White in the 2010 Winter Olympics when, just weeks before the event, Kevin suffered a catastrophic head injury on a risky jump.
The Crash Reel meticulously documents every detail leading up to the horrifying crash. They even found footage of Kevin and his friends partying the night before (Kevin didn't drink), exercising, hanging out and chatting just hours and sometimes minutes before the crash.
Then after that fateful few seconds (yes, they show it--we had to cover our eyes), the documentary shifts to chronicling Kevin's long, slow journey back from nearly dead. The Crash Reel can't decide which of several important issues it really wants the theme of the movie to be, so it tackles them all. This includes recovery from serious brain injury, safety in extreme sports, the dangers of our bigger, better, faster culture and other famous tragedies (Sarah Burke), a parent's guilt when their child is hurt, acceptance of a grown child's decisions even if you don't agree, and how two young men in similar situations handled being mega-celebrity. (One made his girlfriend sign a non-disclosure agreement and trained in secrecy, the other always took his core group of several friends and often family, including his special needs brother, anywhere he went and tossed confidentiality, and smugness, out the window.)
All of this is a fascinating character study of one brilliant young man and his passion. This is not a snowboarding film. It's a film about devoting your all to something, whatever that may be, and then having it suddenly taken away. How can you ever be the same again? Kevin's search for that old life is painstaking and tragic. You'll root for him to feel as alive as he once did sailing through the air. But you will want to shake him when he selfishly says he's going to snowboard again, even as his mother is crying and doctors are telling him he could die. Your heart will break when he gets back on his beloved snowboard and realizes he can't even jump a two foot barrier. And you will feel as shattered as his parents do when you see how much it pains them to think of their boy ever getting hurt again.
The Crash Reel finally finds its voice when the story shifts to Dave, Kevin's younger brother with Down syndrome. Dave is eager, opinionated, funny, and adores his famous brother. But Dave struggles with his own demons. Namely, he can't accept his Down syndrome. Sometimes, he just goes up to his room and cries, he says.
The parallels between Kevin and Dave's struggles become more apparent as the film reaches its bittersweet conclusion. As Kevin starts to accept things can never be the way he wishes, so does Dave. The brothers grow together and teach each other, and emerge closer than ever. Kevin and Dave's relationship defines who Kevin is just as much as snowboarding did, and once the film hits on this, it truly finds its voice.
The Crash Reel is one of the most beautiful and important sports documentaries ever to be made. And one of the most touching and sensitive films about Down syndrome we've ever seen. At nearly two hours, it earns every minute of it. A must see.
Seeing the film: The Crash Reel is set to premiere in U.S. and Canada theaters in December. It premieres in the UK today. For HBO subscribers, it can also be found right now on HBOgo.com before its official release in theaters.