How do you get a clothing sponsor when all your skiers are nude? That’s a question you might find yourself jesting about after screening the new Sweetgrass ski flick, Valhalla.
You might also find yourself thinking “I asked for a ski flick with a story, but I sure wasn’t expecting this!”
Valhalla is set up as a series of chapters, metaphorically reflecting the growing of a child to an adult: youth, adolescent, and so on, all with the goal of passing through life’s phases while always seeing the world through a child’s eyes — playfully interacting — be it skiing or socializing with your tribe.
To thread the story, Valhalla takes the view of a protagonist (“Conrad,” played by Cody Barnhill) a bearded road warrior who journeys “north” in an old Volkswagen Beetle he finally abandons for foot travel. That’s when the flick turns a kind of 1960s psychedelic, when Conrad runs across a group of ski hippies living a camped out fantasy life in the winter wild, with girls and nearby pillow lines. Yep, Valhalla (Odin’s castle, in legend), which morphs to a backwoods party — which morphs to a ski sequence that plays with fireworks and other light-show effects that’ll get you wondering if someone slipped some LSD into your Nalgene. The music helps with that as well: sort of a millennium acid rock mix. (Excellent scoring by the way, I want every song on the soundtrack, today, on my music player).
All the while, Conrad’s internal dialog is the voice-over. The script is well written, with a lot of gems that harken to the soul side of riding white waves, but never too bombastic. “Life there asked you for nothing, except to find out who you are,” referring to an idealized ski bum adolescence.
The carefree life wraps up when the snow melts out of Valhalla, and Conrad heads north once again. But before we get the goods, it is time for legacy. To that end, Sweetgrass cuts in what appear to be old super-8 films of a backcountry skiing and wilderness loving family from the 1960s or 70s. As a baby boomer, the funky old footie totally fit the bill and brought me right back to my roots joy. How the old timey stuff will resonate with folks who weren’t even born yet is another matter, but I’d hope the roots message would arc across generations.
Conrad’s roots saga of course leads him to a high-performance aircraft and a glacier camp in the big hills of the far north. Here you’ll get classic big mountain ski filming, yet with a soulful twist in that many of the ski shots don’t cut away when the athlete falls. More, many of the lines are filmed wide, giving you a sense of the mature immensity the skiers and snowboarders are dealing with.
Obviously all that snow had to come from somewhere, so Conrad is conveniently trapped in his tent during a 3-day storm. When the blue breaks out, you’re thinking it’s time for the aircraft pickup and back to real life. “But first,” says Conrad, “there was three feet of fresh.”
Valhalla of course contains a ton of terrific ski footage. But it’s not a “ski flick” as we’ve come to know ski porn. Instead, I’d call it an art film and an internal experience for anyone who’s found the wilderness speaks to his soul — surpassing adrenaline into the metaphysical. The ending brings it all home, as Conrad’s life comes full circle. To say more would be a spoiler.
Oh, and about the streaking. Let’s just say all is bared and you wonder what the air temperature was. The ski lifts of Whitewater will have new meaning. And you will laugh.
Though parts of Valhalla are somewhat predictable, overall the flick breaks new ground and Sweetgrass should be commended for getting a bit out there and taking risks. I’d even go so far as to say before you go, think about your relationships: family, friends, opposite sex — and where all that takes you in the arc of your backcountry life. Recommended.