Movie Review: First Descent

Q: How does a snowboarder introduce himself?

A: He turns around, waves and says, “Sorry, dude!”

Obviously, a skier wrote that joke, but even the skier who came up with that joke would find lots to love about “First Descent.” There is some exhilarating camerawork of the best of the best doing things that they didn’t even know they were capable of doing. The easy way out would be to describe it as a Warren Miller movie for ‘boarders, but it is actually much more than that. While it deals with the stars of the present, it also includes a comprehensive history of the sport’s origin and evolution, which makes it part Warren Miller and part “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” If only it had been about 20 minutes shorter.

The setup for the movie is that five of the world’s best snowboarders – Shawn Farmer, Shaun White, Hannah Teter, Nick Peralta and Norway’s Terje Haakosen – travel to Alaska to do some hardcore mountain skiing, the likes of which the 18 year-olds White and Teter have never attempted. This 10-day adventure is broken into chapters by interchanging storylines on the history of snowboarding and the backgrounds of the five snowboarders. Given the range in ages of the five main players – White and Teter are 18, Farmer is 40 – you get a lot of different takes on what snowboarding means to them and how much it’s changed since they started ‘boarding.

Farmer is easily the most fascinating of the bunch. Looking like the bearded love child of Flea and Pete Rose, Farmer (no one calls him Shawn, and that’s not in deference to wonderboy Shaun White) has a raw enthusiasm for the sport that belies his years. Sometimes this gets him into trouble – after one wipeout, his left arm looks like something out of a Joe Theissman clip, without breaking the skin – but it leaves the viewer impressed just the same. White is impossibly composed for an 18 year-old. A five-time X Games winner, he is uncommonly graceful about his success. When he meets NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, and Gordon tells him that his boots are Shaun White boots, White is clearly bowled over. “Gordon’s getting a free board for that comment,” he jokes later.

Of the two devices that cut up the action, the historical overlook, narrated by Henry Rollins (it is surely not a coincidence that “TV Party” appears as background music), is the more compelling. The shots of the early ‘70s gear is hilarious (riders held a rope attached to the board’s nose to keep their balance), and the clips from skiers in the ‘80s, disgusted that they have to share their slopes with these punks, are even funnier. Throughout the timeline are shots of incredible freestyle moves and footage from the early snowboard videos which, as one of the stars of those videos says, were indeed “Jackass” before there was “Jackass.” The most jaw-dropping moment comes when White’s buddy Travis Rice does a run from a nearly pristine mountaintop, and in the process creates a monstrous avalanche that nearly takes him under. They show it three times from two different angles, and not once does the gravity of the moment lose its impact.

If “First Descent” has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t know when enough is enough. In their attempt to make an all encompassing doc on the sport, filmmakers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison didn’t know when they had outstayed their welcome. By the time you got to Terje’s “flashback” (all five skiers were shot spending time at home one month before the Alaska trip), you realize that, while they all came from vastly different backgrounds, their upbringings, surprise, were very much alike, and as a result were quite dull. Terje’s story, though, will open the eyes of many to the fact that there is surfing in Norway. Who knew? Besides the Norwegians, that is. Still, only skiers and non-snowboarders will bellow about the movie’s length. “First Descent” (yes, it does end with one ‘boarder making the first drop on one steep-ass mountain, but I won’t give away the details here) will thrill anyone who’s ever strapped a board on a slope. But speaking as a fellow skier, would it kill these guys to not run over our skis when they pass by?

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
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