3 stars (out of four)
What's the best way to spend the first day after a new snowfall in Alaska's pristine backcountry?
If you answered, "Plunging headfirst from the peak of a very steep mountain with my feet strapped to a fiberglass plank," you're in luck. "First Descent," the feature debut from Kevin Harrison and Kemp Curley, is here, bringing with it all the excitement, adrenaline and idiocy that accompany world-class snowboarding. The movie provides a relatively clear-eyed glance back at the sport's early days, as well as a showcase for five of the world's foremost talents, who are brought together for a sort of intergenerational spaz-fest in the snow.
Visually, this is one of the most arresting sports documentaries in years, and it doesn't skimp on the visceral thrills, either. The end result, elevated by a fantastic soundtrack (overseen by the great Mark Mothersbaugh), leaves you with a hankering to flee daily life and dive into a snowy abyss (in a good way). Harrison and Curley aren't stingy with the vistas: They shoot Alaskan sunsets from the boarders' base camp, mountaintops from hovering helicopters and, of course, snowboarding competitions-as-rock concerts in Colorado and, interestingly, Japan. The colors, the light and the scenery are spectacular, as are the feats attempted by the film's motley crew of snowboarding fanatics.
First, the veterans: Shawn Farmer, the 40-year-old pioneer whose decades of hijinks on and off the mountain both ensured him cult status and robbed him of the ability to survive as an adult; Nick Perata, the wisest and most philosophical of the bunch and the ostensible leader of the Alaska expedition; and Terje Haakonsen , a Finnish native who's widely considered the most talented rider in the sport's history.
Then (cue thrasher music) there are the newbies: Shaun White, a totally z enned-out redheaded wunderkind, dubbed by one sportscaster "the LeBron James of snowboarding," and Hannah Teter, the youngest child (and only daughter) in a boisterous snowboarding family, born and raised in rural Vermont.
Beyond its high-energy retrospectives and eye-popping photography, the movie also packs a knockout sponsorship punch. "Descent" is the first movie from MD Films, the production division of Mountain Dew. Yes, you read it right. The neon-green soda beloved by the world's sugar freaks and teenage boys has made itself a nice little movie deal. In exchange for propping up Harrison and Curley's flick, MD has managed to insert its product into nearly every scene in the movie.
There's no shame in sponsorship, of course. It's the backbone of any newbie sport. But the 1990s surge in snowboarding popularity created a sticky moral dilemma for its enthusiasts--which is in turn encapsulated with painfully ironic perfection in this movie: Embrace the corporate sponsorship, widespread recognition and cash, or stick close to the rough-and-tumble roots of a theoretically anti-establishment sport.
It's not a new conundrum; skateboarders and surfers faced precisely the same issue when their pursuits caught the eye of Madison Avenue admen. (See "Riding Giants," produced by the surfing industry's Quiksilver, and "Dogtown and Z-Boys," an homage to the birth of skateboarding sponsored by skate-shoe maker Vans). But it's a double-edged sword that tortures all but the most jaded competitors.
If Teter and White are any indication, while members of snowboarding's new guard can't be called jaded, they are certainly cooler, calmer and more calculating than their harebrained, wild-child predecessors. The sport's new world is still anchored on postcard-worthy mountains, but even as it celebrates death-defying feats of bravery--or foolish abandon--it's swathed in logos, swigging the sponsor's soda, meticulous about soundbites and careful to show its best side to the ever-present cameras.
Directed and produced by Kevin Harrison, Kemp Curley; written by Harrison; photographed by Scott Duncan; edited by Curley; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; co-produced by John Kaplan and Mark Joubert. An MD Films release; opens Friday. Running Time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and a momentary drug reference).
Narrator - Henry Rollins
Shawn Farmer - himself
Terje Haakonsen - himself
Nick Peralta - himself
Hannah Teter - herself
Shaun White - himselfCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times