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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Crash Reel

Introduction The Crash Reel

The Crash Reel is a documentary directed by UK film director Lucy Walker which premiered at  the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. It tells the story of champion snowboarder, Kevin Pearce, who suffered a serious head injury in 2009, in his early twenties, whilst training for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It follows him and his family through the difficult stages in the immediate aftermath of his injury, when he spent six days in a coma, through the stages of his physical recovery to the following years in which they are all confronted by the cognitive changes caused by his traumatic brain injury (TBI).

As well as considering the very personal circumstances of Kevin Pearce and his family, this documentary explores the world of extreme sports from the perspective of both the athletes and the spectators. Athletes are driven to perform ever more spectacular stunts, perhaps motivated in part by greater sponsorship deals, and spectators seek the thrill of watching them take these extreme risks. The documentary’s title refers to the portfolio of filmed crashes that snowboarders collect over time and which audiences enjoy watching. By juxtaposing many of these filmed falls with the reality of Kevin Pearce’s accident, and some other snowboarding tragedies, the film challenges the viewer to feel differently about those Crash Reels in the future. The director discusses some of these issues in an interesting interview given at the Sheffield documentary festival in 2013.

The Film

The Crash Reel opens with footage from the successful years of Kevin Pearce’s rise to fame as a champion snowboarder, competing for the top spot with his life long rival Shaun White, and hoping to take a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Kevin is seen to be a fearless, talented young man, from a hugely supportive, loving family, at the height of his athletic ability when he suffers a terrible accident, during a training session, that results in his traumatic brain injury. The film follows Kevin and his family as he progresses steadily through each stage of his rehabilitation.

Of particular interest, are the scenes with Kevin’s parents and his brothers, one of whom, David, has Downs syndrome. David is given the opportunity to talk about his own struggle with his disability in a very open and honest way that gives further insight into how this family functions. The positive effect that his family undoubtedly has on Kevin’s recovery is recorded in an unsentimental way. The film also provides the viewer with empathic understanding of how challenging it could be to interact with someone you love who has lost their judgement and insight about their mental and physical abilities. The interactions between David and Kevin are particularly significant in helping the family try to persuade Kevin to reconsider his desire to return to snowboarding again, and are fascinating to watch.

However, despite his family’s misgivings, Kevin is determined to make a return to snowboarding, only to find that he cannot function at anywhere near his previous level of ability, causing him much frustration but forcing him to realise that he must accept the different person that he has become.

Several other stories are told alongside Kevin’s and they do not have such a positive outcome. One of these is the tragic death of freestyle skier, Sarah Burke, on exactly the same half-pipe where Kevin had his accident. Another story focuses on the snowboarder, Trevor Rhuda, who has been left with severe cognitive and physical disabilities resulting from three successive TBIs caused by a return to snowboarding against medical advice. Kevin meets with him and his mother and is visibly moved by hearing his mother describe Trevor’s aggressive challenging behaviour and inappropriate affect. This seems to shift something for Kevin in his understanding of his own limitations and for the first time brings some insight that he should accept his ‘new brain’ and his ‘new life’. With this improvement comes a sense of progress again, more than two years after his accident. Finally Kevin begins to find a role as a sports commentator and as an advocate for others with TBI which brings him a renewed purpose and enjoyment, albeit of a very different kind.


Relevance to the Field of Mental Health

The Crash Reel offers the viewer a perfect opportunity to learn about traumatic brain injury  and its long term sequelae. Through the portrait of Kevin both before and after his accident and during his lengthy recovery phase one gets a good sense of the protracted time it may take for recovery to occur. In conjunction with the recently released and updated guidance by NICE on the management of Head Injury (CG176), the film might be especially useful for those teaching students from a variety of healthcare disciplines. From a mental health perspective, the film is particularly good at presenting the effect that Kevin’s TBI has had on his insight, judgement, memory, mood and ability to regulate his impulses. Further learning is provided in a scene where Kevin’s brain scans are shown to him by a specialist who points out the area of damage that explain some of his ongoing difficulties.

The Crash Reel also offers the opportunity to teach about the assessment of mental capacity by considering the changes that the viewer is shown in Kevin’s ability to understand, weigh up and make fully formed judgements about whether to snowboard again. The contrast between Kevin and Trevor Rhuda on this issue is brilliantly illustrated in the scene where Trevor seems unable to weigh up the important information presented to him by Kevin. Most significant, however, is the demonstration of an alteration in Kevin’s mental capacity over time as he recovers greater insight and executive function, which is a really important aspect to consider when teaching about this topic. In essence, it demonstrates that mental capacity assessments must always be decision and time specific.

In the USA The Crash Reel  has given rise to a campaign called LOVEYOURBRAIN led by Kevin Pearce  which aims to inform people, especially snowboarders and skiers, about TBI. The Kevin Pearce Fund has also been established to help fund organisations that support families facing challenges as a result of TBI. In the UK, the charity Headway offers advice and information about brain injury and has some excellent resources available on its website about the condition. This film offers an important learning opportunity for anyone wanting to know more about living life with a brain injury and I would highly recommend it.


• More information about The Crash Reel can be found at IMDB as can a short trailer.

• The Crash Reel can be purchased from

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida




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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.

  You can now follow Minds on Film on Twitter @psychfilm