“I learned more about my dad through those cards than I had my whole life,” says the son of snowboarding impresario – and the sport’s possible inventor – Jake Burton Carpenter, near the end of this biographical documentary. His father has been blinded and partially paralysed by Miller Fisher syndrome; where Carpenter once penned letters addressed “Dear Rider” to snowboarding’s swelling community, he is now reduced to scribbling half-legible pleas from his hospital bed. It induces a late swell of sympathy for a handsome maverick who, at least in this fitful portrait, had come across as distant and sometimes even a bit sharklike.
Dear Rider labours in positioning Carpenter’s story as a piste-side Dogtown and Z-Boys; the rebellious upstart sport pricking the pomposity of institutionalised skiing. Its basic problem is that Carpenter – whose independent streak led him to experiment in the late 70s with creating surf and skate equivalent “Snurfer” boards – wasn’t the outsider for long. As the head of what grew into industry giant Burton Snowboards, he doesn’t seem – at least until the film’s closing stretch – wildly charismatic or inspirational. And in some ways his west coast rival Tom Sims is more prescient in hothousing the freestyle ethos that later dominated the sport rather than the more linear, ski-influenced, east-coast tradition Carpenter came out of.
At one point, Carpenter – who had purchased the 1960s patent for an early version of the snowboard to annoy Sims – proceeded to enforce his ownership with businesses in the kind of fledgling position Burton once occupied. Totally heinous, dude! It’s telling that he later describes this as a “PR fuck-up”, not an ethical one.
Dear Rider doesn’t exactly ignore such tricky aspects, but soft-treading criticisms from Burton employees and understandably partial recollections from Carpenter’s wife Donna (the current CEO) don’t fully weigh the man’s character either. Carpenter died in 2019 and the film’s remit is essentially celebratory – but perhaps split loyalties are why director Fernando Villena never quite hits on a compelling dramatic throughline. Still, the film proceeds down several intriguing cultural gullies, and the snowboarding sequences are pure mainlined beauty.