'The Crash Reel' Review: HBO's Kevin Pearce Documentary Is More Than a Comeback Story


You probably haven’t heard of Kevin Pearce. You have, however, heard of Shaun White, the decorated Olympic snowboarder that Pearce beat seven times from 2007-09. The two were the kings of the sport, vying for the world’s top ranking while cultivating a rivalry that fans and media alike couldn’t get enough of. 

Today, White continues to rack up trophies while readying for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Pearce talks to audiences about recovery from traumatic brain injury.

“I feel like I’ve gained the most valuable thing in life,” he told a full crowd at HBO’s Manhattan studio. “I can help.”

Pearce and traumatic brain injury in extreme sports are the focus of The Crash Reel, an HBO documentary that premieres Monday. Directed by Oscar-nominee Lucy Walker, The Crash Reel dives into Pearce’s ascent through the snowboarding world, his fall on an Olympic practice run in December 2009 that left him with a critical head injury, and the physical and mental tribulations of fighting back. In a whirlwind six-month span, Pearce was forced from world-famous athlete to struggling survivor.

“There was a while there where I wasn’t ready to accept it,” Pearce said. “That part of my life is over. That was then, I have to figure out what to do now.”

Watching Pearce recover from TBI is wrenching enough for audiences, but watching him try to battle back to the halfpipe against the pleas of his family and doctors is even tougher. As he attempts to return to the sport he loves, Pearce negotiates the new conditions of his life and meets athletes who have endured two TBIs, resulting in a change of heart.

Though his story is captivating, it’s not the only one told in The Crash Reel. Pearce’s recovery and assimilation back to everyday life is juxtaposed with other athletes who weren’t as fortunate, like skier Sarah Burke, who endured a crash at the same practice pipe as Pearce but ultimately passed away. Because she wasn’t competing in a sanctioned event, Burke’s six-digit medical bills weren’t covered by her sponsors, a reality that Walker said has to be changed.

The Crash Reel also lends time to Pearce’s youngest brother David, who has Down's syndrome. The bond between David and Kevin is an important piece of the story, but Walker noted that David's character plays a bigger thematic role.

"What you want is people who aren't afraid to let you go through what they're going through," she said. "You should be open about a disability and be courageous to share it. That's what the audience can really engage with."

Walker didn't meet Pearce until the summer after his accident at a Nike retreat. After being lassoed into his compelling story, she was forced to go through 242 sources of home video, news clips and vérité footage. The process ultimately inspired Walker to join Pearce and his family in TBI advocacy, and the film has aligned with Pearce's Love Your Brain campaign while working with local ski slopes to award discounts for riders who wear helmets. Less than 50% of 18-25 year-olds wear helmets in extreme sports, Walker added. 

Having made its way through the film festival circuit, The Crash Reel premieres on HBO Monday and runs throughout the week. The documentary may be complete, but Pearce's new journey has only just begun.

"He makes amazing connections with kids," mother Pia Pearce said. "I just hope Kevin can connect with others like this."

The Crash Reel premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.