Snowboarding as a sport has come a long way from the maladjusted skateboard crews who wanted to get their rocks off in the wintertime. The phenomenon has become a flashpoint for the extreme sports generation, growing considerably in popularity and profitability as the years tick by. "First Descent" (IMDb listing) is a new documentary that takes the viewer on a tour of snowboarding history, and to the peaks of Alaska, where five individuals are looking for fresh, unclaimed mountains to break in.
The film opens with Shawn Farmer (the grizzled, 40 year-old, partied-out boarder), Terje Haakonsen (the daredevil), Hannah Teter (the lone female), Nick Perata (the dad), and young Shaun White (the Leif Garrett of the sport) finding their bearings in Alaska, appreciating the endless snow and sky-high landscapes they're looking to "conquer." Directors Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison dive right into the hair-raising snowboarding footage, using biographical segments with each participant to break up the action along the way. "Descent" was made using the exact some mold as the successful sport documentaries "Dogtown and Z-Boys" and "Riding Giants," so there are no real surprises when it comes to storytelling. The strength of the film is found in the footage, and thankfully, Curly and Harrison provide a steady flow of insane snowboarding locations and trick clips, throwing in the thrill of professional triumphs along the way.
My only real criticism of these documentaries is their smug attitudes about their subjects; "Descent" isn't shy when it comes time to expound on the mark snowboarding has left on sports, taking it so far as to imply that the skiing industry would have died without it. Perhaps that's true; however, what "Descent" needed was less boasting about reputation and a perceived cultural impact, and more humor and original directorial vision. There's great, crisp footage of the mountain runs, and an easy to follow history of snowboarding from the '70s to today, but the filmmakers spend so much energy trying to drum up respect for snowboarding that "Descent" starts to come off as shrill propaganda.
"Descent" might appeal to those who are curious about the sport, but I have trouble believing it will convert anyone. The film is made for those with snowboarding already in their hearts, climaxing wonderfully with Haakonsen staring down a mile-long virgin descent that will bring chills to those in the know. "First Descent" accomplishes the small goals it lays out for itself, and it will leave the causal viewer with a newfound respect for these "surfing" legends, and the sport that continues to blossom.
Filmfodder Grade: B-