From director Marion Mauran, the new documentary Elevation Change depicts the astounding journey of Sam Fox, a young endurance athlete who sets out to break the speed record on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) which stretches over 2,500 miles from Canada to Mexico. However, this trek is not for Fox’s own personal fame and recognition; he is inspired by his mother’s brave battle against Parkinson’s disease. Aiming to raise a quarter of a million dollars for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, this athlete must work to overcome unbelievable physical, mental, and emotional strife along his journey. Also on the trail is Scott Williamson, the current speed record-holder for the PCT. Both men are motivated by separate, yet similar, objectives and the correlating story of Fox and Williamson is told through a very personal and subjective lens, and is sure to strike a chord with viewers.
Despite the fact that this film is a documentary, it feels like a character study that one might find in a piece of dramatized fiction. Both Sam Fox and Scott Williamson are deeply layered, conflicted, and, to a certain extent, tortured. Fox is burdened by worry for his mother’s future, but he also struggles greatly with the outside perception of his adventure. Some critics accuse him of using the tragedy of his mother for his own personal gain and benefit. He has always been characterized by notorious confidence, even to the point that some might label as cockiness. Is this just a stunt, or are his aspirations truly focused on the compassionate and charitable frontier? These questions begin to bounce around Fox’s own mind in the midst of an epic physical and mental excursion only attempted by the extremely ambitious or the woefully ignorant. On the other hand, Williamson’s approach to endurance athletics can be traced back to a brush with death earlier in his life. In 1996, as an employee at a convenience store, Williamson was shot in the head in an armed robbery which nearly paralyzed him for life. After a truly remarkable recovery, Williamson committed himself to achieving great physical feats with an even deeper intensity. Though he had been a dedicated athlete prior to this experience, this horrific misfortune reignited his zeal and fervor for physical fitness and life as a whole. He wanted to grab ahold of this new lease on life, and never let go. Establishing new records and landmarks in the endurance sports world were considerable achievements of course, but they paled in comparison to his sense of inward reward and fulfillment.
The narrative’s dueling focus between Sam Fox and Scott Williamson is quite impactful, but it also leads to an imbalance in some sections. Perhaps the most effective tool that gives insight into the personality of Sam Fox is the incorporation of raw camera footage and uncensored trail videos. The audience gets a direct glimpse into his everyday life on the PCT expedition as he battles severely swollen ankles (and an entire body, for that matter), hours of merciless solitude in the wilderness, and communication breakdowns with his support crew. John Bernhardt and Eric DePalo are friends tasked with guiding Fox’s journey, providing everything from food, water, and shelter, to pacing statistics, general navigation, and constant encouragement. The duo meets up with Fox at assigned checkpoints every day, but their only method of communication with him is the ever-unreliable cell phone. Sending texts and calls in the middle of a remote mountain range is highly unpredictable, and Fox would often arrive at a checkpoint terribly frustrated and agitated to find that his messages never got through to the crew. Eventually, the mounting barriers become too overwhelming for Fox to realistically attain the PCT speed record, but his perseverance is in spite of these factors is phenomenal. This is where we get the best impression of Fox’s difficulties and hardships. However, looking to Williamson’s odyssey, his story is only told through interviews and conversations. There is no actual footage of his endurance campaign. This does appear a bit odd in comparison to the first-hand depiction of Fox’s journey. While this is likely the result of logistical interference, it still would have served to develop a stronger emotional connection between Williamson and the audience. Yet, the interviews with Williamson and his peers that do find their way into this documentary are very compelling. His charisma and charm ensure that these segments remain captivating, although not quite reaching the personal level of Fox’s trail footage.
Even as the narrative itself is engaging, the cinematography and editing are impressive standouts as well. Jon-Michael Mooney and Ben Salvetti, the Directors of Photography, are responsible for the versatile visual style. The diverse B-roll, filled with sweeping images of the mountain ranges, and kinetic tracking shots of Sam Fox in action, is combined with the intimate, sincere interviews, complementing the contrast of the epic adventure with the extremely personal stakes. Editor Sophie Corra fits all of these puzzle pieces together with a steady hand. With a runtime of 84 minutes, this documentary is paced efficiently, telling its story precisely and competently, without straying into bloated territory. Each portion of the film feels necessary and purposeful. There were likely dozens of hours of footage to be whittled down for the film, and Corra’s efforts in this realm are superb.
This is one of those documentaries that will inspire audience members to go out and do something. Whether committing to a charitable cause or instituting a personal goal for themselves physically, mentally, or emotionally, viewers will be galvanized to actually act on their inspirations. Witnessing the resilience of Sam Fox and Scott Williamson, and the authentic, honest, good-natured work that they are accomplishing with their gifts is uplifting and beautiful to behold. This documentary’s high production value and commendable filmmaking aspects are secondary to the emboldening story and motivating themes. There is something for everybody to appreciate in Elevation Change.
Available on VOD and digital beginning October 1st, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.