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In Seattle, a man named Mike Johnson works at the Gospel Union Mission, a shelter for addicts. He’s a former Army Ranger with a radical therapy regime for those in the program that want to take would seem the most prophetic and literal journey of their lives. That sentiment is illustrated in the film’s stunning opening shot, a Go-Pro sequence of a climber traversing a deep crevice atop an ice and snow-capped vista overlooking an expanse that extends far off into the horizon. Cross over and … you’ll cross over.
Recovery stories, by their very nature, are inspiring, like those athlete montages that preface great sports moments of people who overcome enormous obstacles to reach their goals. Here though, these ‘athletes’ are ones who have fallen to the lowest points in their lives, succumbing to a lifestyle of addiction that has many with no possessions, living on the streets, stripped of everything that makes them seem even human. Now in the program, Johnson recruits for his climb, a team of dedicated recovery addicts who work to use the obstacles of ascending the 14,411 ft (4,392 m) mountain to forever change their lives.
Perhaps the film’s greatest success is how well it demonstrates just what those obstacles are both ahead of them and behind them, the vast difference between saying “I can do it” and actually doing it as grand as the views from the peak. As the team trains, Johnson deftly makes it clear what lies ahead both with stories of his own experience and via an intensive workout that begins going up a few flights of stairs and rappelling over a few dozen feet off a railing to ascending the nearby dangerous Mt. Hood as the right of passage, a do-or-die climb that decides who goes on and who stays behind.
Along the way, we get closer to the team and hear their stories of troubles and triumphs, conflicts and tension, as they work independently to recover while forced to be a team, a team that requires them to be responsible for each other. We witness Johnson having to navigate the pitfalls of the climb but also the varying personalities in the group who are all up against tremendous strain, some trying to get legal access to see their families, some battling impending physical illness, some fighting haunts of a past that constantly torments.
Directed by Samuel Miron and Stephen Scott Scarpulla, A New High is never preachy, even as it lightly touches on the religious aspects the shelter itself instills, instead allowing the growth and declines, the setbacks and choices to shape the story as the climbers strike out on their odyssey. Miron and Scarpulla position their cameras into all aspects of the year-long fight to make the peak, sometimes uncomfortably so as they chart the experience, exposing what is perhaps the most telling moments of the film, the humanity of all involved.
A New High is a highly-compelling film that while beautifully photographed, keeps that secondary to the emotional stakes that truly drive the story. A great technical achievement, it is also a powerfully fulfilling experience that will inspire as well challenge.
A New High is currently available on iTunes and On Demand.
Movie description: A New High is a 2017 documentary about a group of addicts who try to save their own lives by going through an intense recovery program that has them climbing the face of Mt. Rainier.
Director(s): Samuel Miron, Stephen Scott Scarpulla
Actor(s): Mike Johnson