Directed by John-Marc Vallée
Written by Nick Hornby
Based on the novel by Cheryl Strayed
**This was the opening night movie for the San Diego Film Festival 2014. The crowd was pumped and excited to kick it off. Jeffrey Lyons opened it up and if Mr. Lyons is excited to watch this, then hell I am too! Check out my review and let me know your thoughts and if this sounds like something you would be interested in checking out.
If one was to tell the story of their mothers, their relationship to them and attachments, what kind of story would be told? The answers would be varied, different and completely unique to each individual. In the film Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) tells her narrative and the journey she took in order to come to terms with herself and her life. Based on Strayed’s autobiographical novel Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the first person-memoir that details the hike she ventured on, the people she met along the way and the journey that took her over 15 years to tell.
At the heart of the story is her connection to her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), the bond they formed over the years and what she saw her mother go through with her father and her mother’s unbreakable kind spirit. Her mother was a different type of person, she started college when Cheryl was in college, she remained upbeat and happy despite being continuously beat down and penniless, as long as she had her kids and her horse, she was a happy woman. Not until Cheryl takes the journey does she realize that her mother had an influence in on her life and that inside of her she would always carry her mother’s spark and essence inside of her.
Directed by John-Marc Vallée, who has just come off the heels of his success with Dallas Buyers Club, he was able to aptly convey the emotions and feelings of the book by soliciting a performance from Witherspoon that was outstanding and powerful. Not only did he show the emotional and physical anguish that Strayed had to endure, but the overwhelming vastness that is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). To hike the PCT, which extends from the border of US and Mexico all the way to Washington, was accurately depicted as both difficult to tame, yet equally majestic.
Cheryl makes the decision after a series of impactful events, which have lead her down a road of self-destruction and loathing, to hike 1,100 miles across the PCT to find and make amends with herself. The journey combined with the backdrop of the trail was breathtaking and emotionally exhilarating.
Upon hearing of its release I wondered how such a story would be told in a movie format, considering the story in the memoir is told in a pretty straight-forward manner. Instead Vallée takes the ideas and stories, plays with them by mixing and matching them to fit into the story that he is trying to tell, while at the same time keeping the essence of the story intact. He utilizes flashbacks and rapid cuts to bring Cheryl back to points in her life, both happy moments and the ones most people want to forget like meaningless sex with strangers and drug use.
All of these moments and flashbacks always bring her back to the present, the hiking of the trail, filled with days where heat exhaustion feels imminent and others where the snow is so deep she can barely walk. Everything she has faced in her past is what pushes her to keep going, to endure what not many people, let alone other woman would be prompted to do all alone.
Despite the deep nature of the movie, there are times where humor is interjected and it helped to lift the mood. One of the funniest moments is when she is asked if she is a hobo due to her disheveled nature, a reporter is adamant in believing she is one, so much that he hands her a can of beer and chips to help her on the road.
The entire movie is told through the perspective of Cheryl, her highs and lows, intense hunger pangs and thirst for Snapple, vulnerability and smugness are all told through her eyes. For this movie to work, I believe it had to be told this way. To get other characters’ feelings involved and their own biasness towards particular incidents, only would have been a disservice to truly understanding her growth and maturation throughout the film.
The use of symbols also moves the film narrative, the tattoo on her arm, the one she shared with her ex Paul (Thomas Sadoski), the fox in the woods and the black feather in her backpack, the marks on her body. All of these symbols mean something grander in the scheme of her life and they were all coping mechanisms for times when she was going through pain.
I would have liked to have seen more exploration of the characters she meets along the road. Such as her relationship with the hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), sexy Grateful Dead loving dude Jonathan (Michiel Huisman) and the three buddies who bond with her on the trail. These characters play a much more significant role in the book, but in the film they were highly understated and vaguely told. Perhaps this was done in order to build and highlight Cheryl’s story alone.
Witherspoon was fantastic, her acting was raw and different, I have never seen her in this light. We feel her emotions, her frustrations with life and the trail; at times all we hear are her grunts and sighs, as she exudes the feeling that she is all alone. The only voice and noise she can hear is the slight rustle of the leaves and her breath. As an actress, she had to convey all that without saying any words or resting upon a heavy written script. She could definitely be in the running for a best actress nod come award season.
Another heavy hitter and who stood out to me was Dern. She was heartwarming and endearing and with her eyes conveyed a lot of the sensibility and sadness that lurked deep within her soul. Dern pops out on screen and I think she was a perfect choice to play the mother.
Overall, I think this was a great movie, it has a bit of an artistic edge to it and doesn’t feel as big and Hollywood-like as I thought it might end up. The soundtrack was also equally great and really went well with the film. If you like stories that dig deep, then this may the movie for you.