On paper, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild carries the unmistakable whiff of Oscar bait. Adapted from the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, the movie gives Reese Witherspoon the chance to portray a former drug addict who undergoes a physical, mental, and emotional transformation during a grueling, months-long solo hike. But thanks to a solid script by Nick Hornby, the film has a gentle modesty at its center. Vallée is less interested in making a universal story than in telling a singular one, and in doing so he’s crafted an intimate epic.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl, a homeless young woman who, after a dark period of drug abuse and promiscuousness, pledges that she will hike hundreds of miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Portland, where she will begin a new life. Along the way, she wrestles with guilt over her behavior and grief from her mother’s death. And that’s in addition to physical hardships like having ill-fitting boots, running out of water, and being menaced by men who might take advantage of a woman traveling alone though the wilderness.
Vallée does an artful job of composing the film visually. The hiking sequences are brutal and beautiful, sometimes simultaneously. They are intercut with flashbacks and montages that reveal Cheryl’s often fraught childhood, her close relationship with her mother (Laura Dern), and the self-destructive tailspin that led to the demise of her marriage. The juxtaposition of these scenes puts us in Cheryl’s headspace as she comes to terms with her emotional troubles and discovers that the world is bigger and more beautiful than she’s let herself realize.
Reese Witherspoon has always been an ambitious actress, one who took control over the material she wanted to appear in far earlier in her career than many of her contemporaries. She has a producing credit on Wild, and she gives a performance that is tailored to the film’s needs rather than her own awards glory. Sure, she has a couple of powerful scenes, but the movie earns them because Witherspoon has kept her character grounded in real behavior instead of endless pathos.
What makes Wild worthwhile is the way it draws a parallel between the physical and emotional journeys Cheryl forces herself to undertake. Both seem incredibly arduous, but not impossible. Wild isn’t about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds; it’s about the necessity of working hard to become a better person. Cheryl’s issues are, in truth, rather mundane. That’s not to say they aren’t serious, just that there are a great number of people in the world who have problems like hers.
One of the best scenes in the movie shows Cheryl failing to connect with a traditional therapeutic approach. That’s a key sequence because it makes plain that those in the throes of emotional turmoil and/or drug addiction aren’t inherently weak or unredeemable. Wild is a lesson about how strength and perseverance go hand in hand with leading a better life. It’s an inspiring piece of work that leaves you with the knowledge that you don’t have to move mountains to improve yourself, you just need to do whatever you need to do. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: R
- Review: On paper, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild carries the unmistakable whiff of Oscar bait. Adapted from the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, the movie gives Reese Witherspoon the chance to portray a former drug addict who… (more)