A New High, the documentary from directors Samuel Miron and Stephen Scott Scarpulla, opens with a dizzying shot of a climber traversing a mountain crevice hundreds of feet up. A single rickety makeshift bridge separates him from the drop, the climber’s ragged breath providing the lone noise on the soundtrack.
It’s a riveting and visceral opening that vividly mirrors what the movie’s protagonists, an eight-person climbing team, have endured to get to this point. The fact that they’re ascending Mt. Rainier, one of the Lower 48’s most dangerous mountains, is impressive enough. Even more amazingly, this particular group of adventurers is almost entirely composed of homeless, recovering addicts.
The climb is part of an unusual rehab program at Union Gospel Mission, spearheaded by the UGM’s special projects director Mike Johnson. If you can climb a physical mountain, Johnson reasons, recovering from alcohol should be a cakewalk.
Then again, not quite. Some three dozen Mission residents start out training. Over the course of one year’s grueling training, only eight of them are selected for the final ascent to Rainier’s summit. And the battle with relapse amplifies the challenge for them.
Miron and Scarpulla hone in on Johnson and a handful of the trainees, sketching them out with the skill of great narrative fiction filmmakers. The climbers are a disparate bunch: brightly charismatic Johnson presides over the team like a protective father bear. Rick, 59, a heroin addict fighting Hepatitis C, looks and sounds like a bit player from an old western, right down to the cookie-duster mustache. Wednesday, one of two women making the trek, talks frankly about her history of sexual abuse and cocaine use, singing soulfully as the team’s van pierces the darkness en route to a practice climb. Dawn, the other female climber, is so soccer-mom affable, it’s hard to imagine she was once an alcoholic crack addict.
By the time A New High reaches its physical peak, the movie’s spent most of its running time following these and other characters while they navigate pitfalls as perilous as any glacier. Some relapse; others are defeated by the encroachment of age, disease and deflation of spirit. And it’s an undeniably absorbing buildup.
The movie’s not without flaws. Miron and Scarpulla give minimal exposition explaining the whys, wherefores and specifics of the climbing program. And with at least three major figures in this drama invoking their religious faith repeatedly, viewers’ mileage may vary. But the filmmakers readily put their money where their mouths are (both men trained with the team and climbed alongside them), and their sharply-defined, empathetic treatment of this cast of real-life characters consistently wins the day.
A New High’s last quarter packs every bit of visceral exhilaration and suspense you’d expect watching a visual document of a Mt. Rainier climb. But as the old cliché goes, it’s the journey, not the goal, that defines a great adventure. A New High’s greatest strength is how it gives that old canard urgent, heart-stopping immediacy.
A New High screens for the 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival tonight (June 2) at the Shoreline Community College Theater, and also plays June 7 at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Tickets at www.siff.net.