Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2014)

“One day we’ll wake to remember how lovely we are.” – Bruce Cockburn, “Wait No More”

I promise, I’ll stop opening my reviews with song lyrics soon. But the words above are apropos for a few reasons: a) they illumine the core struggle of lead character Cheryl Strayed in Wild; b) Strayed is fond of leaving quotes by poets and folksingers in trail entry logs as she traverses the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT); and c) music infuses the memories that invade and accompany Strayed while she hikes.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s excellent film is based upon Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir of the same name, recounting her time spent on the PCT in California and Oregon. Woefully underprepared and ludicrously overpacked for such an expedition, Wild opens with Strayed flailing desperately for a means to reorient a life that has spun, well, wildly out of control.

As we quickly learn, Cheryl Strayed has indeed strayed far during the past four years. Reeling from the sudden death of her mother, Strayed has fallen into drug addiction and wrecked her marriage. Therapy hasn’t worked, and her best friend is understandably exasperated with her. “When did I become a piece of shit?!” Strayed cries out, shortly before hitting the trail.

Vallee’s film succeeds in just about every way possible. After directing last year’s award-winning Dallas Buyers Club, Vallee had set the bar high for himself, but I believe this is an even better movie.

In Vallee’s hands, scenes of Strayed’s hiking – across the Mojave Desert, through snowy foothills, and in Pacific Coast rainforest – are brilliantly spliced with remembrances both happy and awful. Vallee’s insertions of these flashbacks convincingly mirror the clicks and whirrs of memory’s machinery. A snippet of song on the radio casts Strayed into a childhood recollection of her mother playfully dancing to the same tune. Seeing a horse as she sets up her tent for the night triggers thoughts of her mother’s beloved animal.

Laura Dern, as Strayed's mother Bobbi, in a flashback with a younger Cheryl
Laura Dern, as Strayed’s mother Bobbi, in a flashback with a younger Cheryl

Vallee is also lucky to have Nick Hornby as screenwriter for Wild. Based on the handful of his books that I’ve read (Juliet, Naked is easily my favorite), Hornby impresses me with his proficiency at creating young-ish protagonists who are screwed up and awkwardly seeking self-redemption. Hornby’s work here ranks with his best, with clever dialogue and believable self-talk that manages to be alternately humorous, affecting, and psychologically insightful.

I can’t say I’ve followed Reese Witherspoon’s career too closely (she lost me after Legally Blonde), but I would certainly not kvetch if she took away an Oscar for her portrayal of Strayed. Whether exhibiting physical distress from the bruising rigors of a long-range hike, wariness as a lone female encountering unfamiliar men on the trail, or the gamut of emotions sparked by maternal memories, I was sold on Witherspoon’s performance.

The other key player in Wild is Laura Dern, as Strayed’s mother Bobbi. Between Wild and The Fault in our Stars, Dern is on pace to win this year’s award as “Onscreen Mother Everyone Wishes They Had.” In Wild, Dern is equally persuasive in conveying Bobbi’s resilience as a single mom who stays optimistic regardless of the challenges facing her.

I confess to starting but never finishing Strayed’s written memoir, but I love the story being told in this film. As a secular humanist, I find much that is admirable in its tale. Knowing that willing and motivated people are capable of self-transformation, I appreciate that Reese Witherspoon doesn’t hesitate to depict a character who has done some loathsome things, but is seeking to better herself and stop making the same mistakes repeatedly.

I’m also a believer in the value of stock-taking pauses. To borrow a bit of 12-Step parlance, Strayed uses the hike not only to remember and grieve, but additionally to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the ways she’s messed up and the people she’s wronged.

Strayed doesn’t move to Step 5 and confess this to a Higher Power, however. There is a bit of God-talk in Wild, but Witherspoon’s character ultimately doesn’t lean on an invisible being. She doesn’t need to be born again, she mainly needs to recall the person she was in her mother’s eyes.

Strayed in the desert
Strayed in the desert

To paraphrase another female hiker in Wild, Strayed learns to gather in the beauty of the world around her and let it fill her. Through Strayed’s encounters with nature, animals, and people (sometimes generous, sometimes menacing) on the Pacific Crest Trail, she allows herself to be touched and transformed, appreciating more deeply her place in the universe. In a similar fashion, I found Wild to be quite touching and moving, too.

4.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide: Wild is rightly rated R, in light of its sexual situations, nudity, drug use, and strong language. I would recommend viewing only by older teens and upwards.)

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