Alex Honnold peers over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. He had just climbed 2000 feet up from the valley floor. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

TIFF Review: ‘Free Solo’

Character portrait reaches thrilling heights

6 mins read

Free Solo
(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Programme: TIFF Docs (International Premiere)

Get ready to experience some death defying acts in Free Solo. This spectacularly shot mountain movie demands to be seen on the big screen, as all grand outdoor adventures do. The film chronicles the bold daredevil lifestyle of American mountaineer Alex Honnold, who thrives in the wild performing free solo climbs of the world’s toughest and tallest peaks. Free soloing is the most daring act a climber can do since it requires one to ascend a mountain without ropes, hooks, or harnesses. (Imagine Spider-Man without the webs to save him.) The only things separating life and death are Honnold’s feet, his hands, some chalk to prevent slippage, and the sheer courage to make the leap.

These odds inspire climbers like Honnold to up their game with every free solo adventure. Each climb tests the limits of human spirit and strength against the untamed wild. Honnold is renowned for his climbing, and he makes a living publishing reflections on his travels and speaking for groups, but the question of a more daring climb is ever-present as he discusses his passion with friends and strangers alike.

Free Solo follows Honnold as he prepares to make history by performing a free solo ascent of Yosemite Park’s El Capitan cliff, which stands a daunting 3,000 feet. Honnold guides the cameras up the nooks and cracks of the cliff and highlights the rigorous research and preparation that goes into each climb. He breaks the cliff down into nearly 30 sections, each of which presents its own challenge. Honnold studies each section as he scales the cliff with the aid of a harness to learn the plan of attack he will use on his fateful climb. Months of physical and mental preparation lead to the free solo ascent, and the doc gives a fair portrait of the dedication required to stand on top of the world.

A free spirit, Honnold lives alone in a van, travelling the country in search of the tallest cliffs and the greatest challenges. Honnold is a great character for this adventure since he is fearless in his approach and has an easygoing attitude about dangling so close to death. Archival footage depicts Honnold sharing his love for the high life in interview after interview as reporters ask why anyone would do something so risky and life threatening. If he falls, he says he’ll at least die doing something he loves.

However, Honnold is peculiarly detached from his relationships. He doesn’t seem to grasp that people other than himself have stakes in ensuring that he returns home safely from each climb. The film follows Honnold as he undergoes long overdue psychological testing and he learns that he has an abnormally low reaction to fear stimuli—his brain just doesn’t process the ground 2,000 feet below as something to be afraid of.

The climber encounters his greatest challenge yet when he strikes up a relationship with a young woman named Sanni, who loves him in spite of his daredevil lifestyle and emotional awkwardness. Sanni teaches Honnold how to process his emotions and recognize feelings in others. He’s reluctant at first, but as their relationship grows, the doc captures a bit more energy in his brain during some preparatory climbs. Once things become serious with Sanni, Honnold falls not once but twice while scaling the cliff with her. Perhaps he’s distracted or holding himself back because the stakes have changed. Their relationship becomes a metaphor for the difference between a free solo climb and one with attachment. Doing away with a safety isn’t a sign of weakness. In either case, one will have to jump between the ledges of the cliff, but in one of the two scenarios, someone may be there to catch you. Despite Honnold’s desire to be a nomadic spirit, he isn’t climbing “alone” and never was since his friends and family are far more emotionally invested in his success than he realizes.

Free Solo takes audiences to thrilling heights as directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who previously made the excellent mountain doc Meru, capture Honnold’s climb in extraordinarily close proximity. Thanks to a production team of seasoned climbers and some high-end gear, the film provides intimate looks at Honnold’s climb through every inch of his ascent. The outstanding cinematography reveals the extremity of the climb as the vantage point of the camera allows one to make the climber’s ultimate faux pas of looking back to see the distance below. The sense of perspective is spectacular and thrilling. It’s like scaling the dangerous peak by Alex’s side, experiencing the intensity of the climb without leaving the safety of the movie theatre.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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