Hot Docs 2014: Ski Bums – Documentary Review

Director: John Zaritsky
Country: Canada
Runtime: 76 min
Rating: 14A

Films focused on sports often allow an audience a valuable glimpse into a world about which they may wish to know more, or even to live in it in a vicarious manner. The downhill skiing community in Whistler, British Columbia, has earned itself a reputation as a highly dedicated yet hard-partying group of wild daredevils. Yet, is this status accurate or exaggerated? Oscar-winning director John Zaritsky takes his audience right into the heart of this realm in his documentary Ski Bums. That which the audience sees may affirm or contradict their expectations, and offers an exciting look into a unique and interesting subculture.

Ski Bums

Although the beautiful mountains of the West Coast offer a major draw for wealthy adventure seekers, they are not the only ones who populate these slopes. Self proclaimed “ski bums” share these hills as well, living the lifestyle of the rich on extremely low incomes. These individuals have one primary concern – the rush of a ski run – and are willing to sacrifice the everyday comforts that many take for granted in order to experience it time and time again. This documentary allows the viewer a glimpse into the lives of several lovable and highly memorable ski bums of various ages and stages such as Johnny Thrash, Cupcake, and Crucial Mike. Zaritsky and his camera not only tag along with the skiers as they hit the slopes, but spend much time interviewing them as well, discussing topics such as lifestyle, nicknames, and of course, their uniting love of skiing.

As expected, much of the cinematography in this film highlights the majestic beauty of the Canadian Rockies. I was disappointed that most of the action shots presented were dedicated to showing another skier in motion, as opposed to placing the viewer into the action and causing them to feel as if they were participating in the run themselves. However, this flaw, along with some poorly done green screen throughout, can most likely be attributed to the age of the film, and some breathtaking shots are present nonetheless. The film is broken into chapter-like sections by a selection of “tips” from personality-laden Crucial Mike, who explains how it is possible to live such an expensive lifestyle with very little income. These moments are eye opening as well as amusing, and provide a solid structure around which the film is developed.

Ski Bums

Although Ski Bums aims to go beyond the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that many attribute to this community, there is plenty of that here as well. An upbeat and catchy soundtrack sets the mood and promises the viewer a good time, and the story of one skier’s public nudity stunts causes genuine laughter. The documentary does address some harrowing stories of accidents and near deaths, but they are not the focus by any means, and all end with an uplifting message of overcoming obstacles and the strength of the human body and spirit. The film is often sharply funny, and the amusing individuals that it depicts keep this documentary energetic and edgy.

Ski Bums may offer a few serious discussions, but it is primarily a fun and snappy documentary intent on keeping in the spirit of the people that it depicts. The variety of different individuals on whom the film focuses keeps it moving, as many portraits are painted with varying levels of detail. Ski Bums is not simply a sports movie, and will hold appeal even for those uninterested in skiing specifically. Ultimately, this film encourages one to go against the grain and pave one’s own path through the snow, or any other aspect of their life.