Wild chronicles the experience of Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) 1,100-mile lone hike along the challenging Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border as she tries to overcome personal tragedy and a breakdown.
To add kudos to the whole affair, Wild is of course based on a true story, the memoirs of the real-life Cheryl Strayed called Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Thankfully, there is no groan-inducing prompt regarding this fact at the very start, a tedious tool to try and gain worthiness before we have made up our own minds. All we first witness is one tired woman seemingly in a desperate and potentially life-threatening situation. It suggests this is possibly her last moment on this earth before her demise – cue flashback and start of the tale.
The non-linear narrative is necessary to pinpoint Strayed’s mood on route, to compare how far she has come and how different her thought processes are. Its to-and-fro plot is easily embraced, rather than jarring. Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée does well never to dwell too long on each hardship or each new revelation, adopting Strayed’s attitude of being broad-shouldered and taking the rough with the smooth to the film’s conclusion. In addition, we are rewarded with scenic beauty in all the seasons, where both Strayed and us can take a moment of reflection and absorb what we have just encountered, as well as be reassured in the goodness of humankind along the way in a world of current bleakness.
Witherspoon’s more serious talent, last seen in Walk The Line (2005) has finally returned, with Wild being her first real contender for critical acclaim. Her perky personality is still bubbling along the surface in this though, with moments of ironic humour at Strayed’s situation. There is a kind of guessing game going on as to what situations will be her most testing, which keeps things fresh. There was obviously a major physical investment by the actress that gains her even more respect for her work here.
Laura Dern plays Strayed’s beloved mother, Bobbi. Although youthful for her age and portrayed more like a sister than a mother (she goes back to school with her daughter), it is a little taxing to think of Dern as a mother figure to 38-year-old Witherspoon – the only casting in the film that leaves a question mark. That said Dern’s vitality as ailing Bobbi is infectious, where you wish her ‘older than her years’ daughter would adopt some of her laissez-faire attitude in times of acute adversity. It suggests Strayed’s issues could be mainly self-perpetuated, making this journey to lighten the load even more poignant and her admirably brave to take on the challenge.
Wild is not free from calculated moments of heartstring-pulling – it suggests any such journey starts from first experiencing rock bottom so these are unavoidable, and Vallée positions these strategically throughout the film, without over-egging proceedings. Wild is a journey worth going along on though, if not to marvel at this person’s out-of-character commitment to push themselves. That is the fascinating result of this film that we only really doubt her at the very start, trying to get her heavy backpack on in a motel before she even reaches the trail. The rest of the time we believe in her 100 percent, which is the empowering catalyst.