Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keen McRae
Rated: R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language
Cheryl Strayed is known on two axes: her popular advice column / essay column under the nom de plume “Sugar,” and her fiction writing under her own name. When her memoir “Wild” came out, she announced her identity to Sugar fans and put the column on hold to deal with the book. It’s understandable – “Wild” was a run-away success, with people like Oprah raving about it. Strayed knew it was a filmable book and sent a copy to Reese Witherspoon, who loved it and set about making the film happen.
It’s a beautiful and moving film, full of lush wilderness and beautifully-shot but thoroughly un-beautiful itself squalor; of loving family interactions and screaming fights. The story is told through interwoven flashbacks as we follow Strayed on her 1,100 mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. We see her upbringing, her incredibly close relationship with her mother, her mother’s path from a cancer diagnosis to death, and Strayed’s complete inability to cope with the loss. Her mother, she says, was the love of her life, and you can see why. Laura Dern gives Bobbi a grace and utter devotion to her children that almost hurts to watch if you didn’t have it yourself. She and Strayed went to college at the same time, supporting each other through their studies, and we see how close they are even when Strayed is exasperated with her mother’s unrelenting bright outlook.
In the wake of Bobbi’s death, Strayed collapses, burying her grief by sinking into casual sex and drug addiction. Her marriage falls apart. When she has the epiphany that to hike the PCT might give her a way to purge and process, she sets about it with enthusiasm but almost no knowledge or experience. She backpacks hundreds of miles by herself, only occasionally running across other hikers. It takes months, and reliance on the kindness of strangers.
Witherspoon is astonishing as Strayed. She looks like someone who’s going through misery, who’s in constant pain (both mental and physical once she’s on the trail). There’s no glamour in the drugs and sex, no flattering makeup for mile after mile of trail. When a person she meets during her brief respite in Ashland, Oregon observes that she reeks, we believe her. Witherspoon’s portrayal is unflinching, giving us Strayed’s weaknesses and her strengths, her humanity.
The trail itself is essentially a character in the film, gradually changing from the sand and Joshua trees of the Mojave to the snow of the mountains and the lush forests of Oregon. Its full length is 2,650,stretching from the Mexican border up to the Canadian, with obstacles like rattlesnakes, dangerously thick snow, and brutal weather extremes. It’s considered one of the most amazing trails available to hike, and it’s easy to see why.
“Wild” will definitely not be to everyone’s taste. Folks who already know and love Strayed will likely love it, as it sticks well to the tone and tale of the source material. Newcomers may be put off by the chaotic flashbacks, sometimes only a moment or two long – if you aren’t paying attention, it can be hard to keep track of what happened when. It’s a moving and challenging film, and if you want to see a young woman redeem herself and recover from trauma, it will be right up your alley.