a-new-high-1Year: 2015
Director: Samuel Miron, Stephen Scott Scarpulla
Writer(s): N/A
Region of Origin: US
Rating: N/A
Digital, Color, 91 mins

Synopsis: In the heart of downtown Seattle, a diverse group of men and women will come together to climb out of homelessness and drug addiction through an unorthodox recovery program that uses mountain climbing as a means of rehabilitation.  (Source)

In the opening minutes of A New High, a breathtaking shot appears, for the most part, out of context. An unknown climber is scaling across a ladder sprawled over a vast crevasse. We see only their feet and a deep descent into nothingness. It’s a shot that perfectly takes us into the psychological and physical stakes of Stephen Scott Scarpulla and Samuel Miron’s documentary, focusing on a group of ex-addicts’ innate desire to survive and push themselves to the limits of what’s possible.

Mountains can be majestic landmarks of unexplainable beauty or formidable symbols of adversity. It’s the duality of these natural beacons that the Union Gospel Mission’s Mike Johnson uses to help lost drug addicts – the ex-Army Ranger’s recovery program culminates with a climb to the summit of Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Taking us from the streets of Seattle to the highest point in America (Rainier stands at a staggering 14,400 ft), directors Scarpulla and Miron focus on a select amount of individuals, each hopeful to break a cycle of temptation and habitual self destruction by literally taking a journey to the peaks of recovery.

Most notable about the film is how it captures its subject’s stories with an amazing amount of artistry and clarity. As a group of former addicts finally ascend to the summit of Rainier amidst some sacrifice, another shot shows a row of climbers surrounded by darkness, illuminated by only the lanterns they are carrying. It is as chilling as it is striking, very symbolic to the story we’ve seen unfold from each individual. It’s in shots like these that the filmmakers manage to capture the singular journey of each individual as they physically and mentally face their demons, but also the bonds that are formed between those making the climb.

a-new-high-3What’s amazing about each story complied here is that we get a complete portrait of a human being. Like few films of its type, we’re treated to stunning transformations of people who have beat the odds and found hope where it was once unattainable. It’s a sobering look at the breadth of humanity and how similar our desires are despite being disparate in almost every other way.

Mike Johnson is the type of person who chooses to celebrate triumph, and Directors Stephen Scott Scarpula and Samuel Miron give us a window into his journey, along with the few that dare to take charge and forge a new path in their lives. Stunning photography, and sensitivity to such a devastating subject make A New High not only one of the best documentaries you’ll see all year, but one of the best films as well.