“Free Solo” Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin join climber Alex Honnold at an Oct. 8, 2018 screening of the film at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Photos by Kirke Wrench.
Free Solo is ostensibly a documentary about one man’s quest to ascend Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan – “the most impressive wall on earth” at 3,200 feet of sheer granite and “the center of the rock climbing universe,” according to its subject, Sacramento native Alex Honnold – without ropes. At all. Read that again. 

That death- and gravity-defying quest induced gasps and even shrieks from the audience at the CineArts Sequoia theater this week as part of the 41st Mill Valley Film Festival, where it screened prior to its wider release in the Bay Area and beyond next week. And it did so despite the fact that most in attendance likely knew the story’s ending, as Honnold’s unfathomable achievement drew coverage and attention across the globe.

But the gasps weren’t reserved solely for physical marvels. Free Solo also serves up another slice of high drama. As Honnold, a self-described “dark soul” who wasn’t hugged by his parents as a kid and never heard the word “love,” readies his ascent, he also navigates his relationship with his girlfriend Sanni McCandless, who “pretty much makes life better in every way,” he says. That sentiment is a leap from earlier in the film when he admits that because his free soloing demands a near-perfection attention to detail, “I will always choose climbing over a lady – at least so far.”

From exchanges with McCandless to interactions with directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Honnold is blunt and seemingly devoid of emotion at every turn in the film. “If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get,” Honnold says, telling McCandless about the “simmering resentment” that would come with letting their budding relationship impact his decision to embark on a quest that could lead to his death.

“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy,” he adds.

Vasarhelyi, Chin and Honnold all appeared at the Oct. 8 screening and participated in a light-hearted Q&A after the film about Honnold’s unfathomable achievement and the production of the film that captured it all. 

As has been the case at previous Free Solo events, Honnold was once again asked about his next free soloing quest in the wake of his El Capitan feat, and he politely deflected. But Vasarhelyi chimed in by recounting Canadian free solo climber Peter Croft‘s reply on behalf of Honnold: “Would you ask Neil Armstrong what planet he would you go to next?”

The 411: “Free Solo” opens in Bay Area theaters next week, including at the Smith Rafael Film Center on Monday. Oct. 15. Here’s the trailer:​