WILD Movie Review: A Powerful Journey of Self-Discovery

How do you move past grief?  What does it take to get back in the driver’s seat of your own life?  How do you learn to forgive yourself?

Wild, the new film by The Dallas Buyer’s Club director Jean-Marc Vallée tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman searching for answers to the these questions.  Strayed, who poetically selects this new last name as her marriage ends due to her infidelity, has ‘strayed’ from the path of her life.  She decides to follow a new path, The Pacific Crest Trail, to walk herself back to the person she wants to be, a person her mother would be proud of.  The PCT is a ~2600 mile hike that begins at Mexico’s US Border and finishes at the Canada/US border.  Its one of the most grueling long distances hikes a person could do; through desert, snow and rain, intentionally miles away from civilization.  The movie follows Cheryl as she struggles through the hike, but it’s not really a film about a girl struggling against nature.  Rather it is about a woman struggling with herself, her grief, and her mistakes.

The script by novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) is very well done.  Like most other Hornby works, its filled with humor while still managing to hit the necessary dramatic beats.  The movie open’s with Cheryl beginning her journey, and the script jumps around from there, showing us Cheryl’s past emotional struggles inter-cut with her present physical ones.  The structure works brilliantly.  The solitude on the trail is forcing Cheryl to finally confront her past, and because we go into the hike knowing nothing of it, we’re confronting it at the same time.  If I had one complaint on the story, we jump around between different time periods so often that the overall timeline of the film can, at times be difficult to track.  In preparation for writing this review I managed to put everything together, but while in the moment there were times when I was unsure what was happening and when.

I’m happy to report that the Oscar buzz surrounding Reese Witherspoon’s performance is completely justified.  She’s great as Cheryl Strayed.  It’s a darker performance than Witherspoon usually plays (Strayed isn’t exactly a great person) but  the actress is up to the task.  The role forces her through a lot of physical and emotional extremes.  One minute she’s wading her way through a  rushing river, the next she’s breaking down in tears in the middle of a redwood forest.  Witherspoon manages to pull off these extreme moments, but also succeeds at the more subtle ones.  Early in the movie there is a scene where Cheryl is speaking with a psychiatrist.  She finds the process of discussing her feelings and what she’s thinking about as trivial and useless.  Later in the movie we see Cheryl on the trail camping with a few random strangers.  They start to ask her what she thinks about when she’s alone.  Cheryl starts to answer, but is interrupted by these drunk guys who don’t actually care.  The disappointment is visible on Cheryl’s face.  She was finally ready to talk about things and then can’t find a person willing to.  This is a very subtle character change, and Reese nails it.

Surprisingly, however, the performance that stuck out most to me was that of Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi.  Bobbi encapsulates everything that Cheryl is not.  Where Cheryl considers herself sophisticated, Bobbi is uneducated and reads junky novels.  Where Cheryl is embarrassed and shamed by her past, Bobbi embraces and accepts the mistakes that have led her to the place she is in her life.  Dern is perfect in this role.  She radiates warmth and optimism in a movie that for much of the running time, has very little of it.  Strayed is simultaneously frustrated and enamored by her mother.  She is her rock through both her life and through her trek into the wild.  Thus, Dern is our rock throughout the film.  Her performance gives the drama and conflict meaning and weight.

The movie is beautifully shot.  This is a film that primarily takes place in the deserts, forests and mountains of western North America and the camera makes sure we drink in all the beauty.  I had no idea this trail existed before I saw this movie and I wouldn’t exactly consider myself hiker, but the magnitude of the beauty on display here made me want to try out this experience.  I’m sure I’ll get over that quickly.

Cheryl Strayed’s journey of self-discovery is a fascinating one that I enjoyed embarking on.  The PCT is a perfect metaphor for life; dangerous, often painful, but ultimately beautiful.

Wild is currently in limited release at theaters around the country.  Check your local Arthouse theaters.

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