IN 2009, Kevin Pearce was a talented 22-year-old American snowboarder destined for Winter Olympics glory when an accident during a training run left him with a near fatal brain injury just 49 days before the Vancouver games were due to begin.
With his quest for glory fuelled by an epic rivalry with former friend Shaun White (who went on to win Olympic gold), his was the sort of story beloved of inspirational sports movies – which was precisely why British documentary maker Lucy Walker, whose new film The Crash Reel examines Kevin’s life, didn’t think it would be right for her.
“‘Olympic hopeful crashes’ seemed like a sad story that you could maybe twist to seem uplifting,” she explains, “but it took me a while to see that the crash was really just the starting point.”
Once she realised that, however, Walker (who made the Oscar-nominated Waste Land) discovered she could make a far richer film by focusing on the ripple effect this one split-second miscalculation – which was captured on film by a passer-by – had on Kevin, his family and the extreme sports world in general.
First meeting Kevin and his family while he was still badly injured – “He couldn’t remember things and kept reintroducing himself to me” – Walker was struck by his determination to make a comeback, despite the fact that his brain was now so vulnerable he might die if he suffered even a small blow to the head.
“I was terrified,” admits Walker of the moment Kevin did finally get back on the slopes. “I was truly concerned that he was going to die and I would have this slow motion tragedy of a film on my hands.” What gives the film real power, though, is the way Kevin’s determination to get back out there gradually subverts sports movie clichés as Walker widens the scope of the film to reveal how his youthful determination to beat the odds starts tearing his loving family apart.
“Normally you’re cheering for the comeback kid,” notes Walker. “And in this case you’re begging him to stop putting himself in harm’s way.”
That’s also why she chose to call the film The Crash Reel – to highlight the consequences of the spectacular crashes that make extreme sports so enticing for spectators. “These crashes happen all the time and are sort of glamorised and edited together into these crash reels … It’s rubber-necking as entertainment.”
• The Crash Reel is released in cinemas on Friday, and will be shown on Sky Atlantic in November