Clayton Vila's latest film is a bold new perspective on urban skiing with aspirations beyond the ski-film genre.
When Stept Productions stopped making annual ski films after 2014’s Ten and Two, many wondered what the future would hold for the ski crew that’s notorious for pioneering high-consequence urban skiing.
Fortunately for us, Clayton Vila has risen to the challenge of continuing the crew’s groundbreaking street-skiing legacy, proving himself as influential a filmmaker as he is a skier. After continually stepping up his involvement in producing, directing and editing his segments in recent years, Vila released his first short film with producer/director credits, “Five,” last year. His first full-length release, For Lack of Better, is unlike anything he—or anyone else, for that matter—has done before.
For Lack of Better is not your typical ski movie; Vila goes so far as to say that it’s not a ski movie at all. “This isn’t a ski movie, or even a movie strictly for skiers,” he says. “It’s a movie about people, people with a passion and the lengths they will go to pursue that passion.”
Intended for mass audiences, the film assumes its viewers knows absolutely nothing about what Vila, Cam Riley and Sean Jordan are doing out in the streets, and starts the story from there. We’re given the definition of what a “street skier” is, as well as the “segment” he’s working on, and explained everything from the winch tow-in to the legal implications of professional street skiing (in a nutshell, these guys get paid to vandalize and trespass).
Screenshot from For Lack of Better: Scoping a spot in Amherst, Massachusetts.
We also get in-depth interviews with the crew explaining why they do what they do, which occasionally verge on over-dramatization, but also unearth basic, sometimes hard truths about the unique business these skiers are in. “We know that it’s, like, not worth it,” Vila admits at one such moment. “But we know that it’s just what we do, and so it’s not even worth talking about the alternative.”
This storytelling approach might be too slow-paced for a certain kind of ski-movie watcher—the skier who wants to watch a film and get pumped up for a day on the hill, for example. But that’s not the film that For Lack of Better is trying to be. Nevertheless, the skiing in the film is still second to none in its field, with its in-depth documentary approach only heightening the intensity of every hard-earned action shot.
I’ve always felt that ski films do their shots little justice when they don’t acknowledge in some way the circumstances behind the shots: the huge effort that went into creating them at a unique time in a unique place. For Lack Of Better takes this concept to its extreme, focusing major segments of the film on a handful of select urban features, crescendoing to heights of action after minutes of terse build-up that show all the behind-the-scenes work: hours of scoping, the hustle to build spots, avoiding security and cops, in order to finally—hopefully—capture the desired moment of skiing triumph on film.
The huge, consequential, landmark features define the contours of the film, from Vila’s jaw-dropping one-shot backflip down a very public stairset in Amherst, Massachussetts, to Cam Riley’s three-story bomb drop off a parking garage. The high risk factor of each feature turn each attempt into an excruciating, edge-of-the seat experience for the viewer—will this end with a banger shot in the bag, or a trip to the hospital?
Not every feature works out quite as planned…
This is a film that knows how to take its time: time for an interviewee’s response to a question to play out in his facial expressions; time to show dozens of Cam Riley’s 132 attempts on a monster double-kink rail, each more nail-biting than the next; time for Vila to pause in anticipation on the drop-in of a technical gap to rail, psyching himself up for the act as the audience shivers in anticipation.
For Lack of Better won’t be for everyone—no good film is—but it’s certainly a bold new take on a somewhat tired ski-movie genre that’s in need of fresh approaches. This filmmaking creativity can be celebrated in and of itself, of equal achievement with the groundbreaking urban skiing that it documents.