Wild could easily be a superficial vanity project. It has all the prestige bait elements with an A-star actress scrubbing it up, dressing down, and reinventing herself to play a real-life person on a solo journey of self-discovery. Fortunately, Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée, author/screenwriter Nick Hornby, and producer/star Reese Witherspoon have crafted a thoughtful, grounded drama about personal struggle amidst the setting of the great outdoors.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed (based on her memoir), a young woman struggling to find herself after her single mother (Laura Dern) dies from cancer after leaving her abusive father and getting over her own divorce and battle with addiction. The film follows Cheryl's memory based narrative, weaving in and out of her troubled life as Cheryl sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail over three months.
Strayed's portrait on film is thoughtfully characterized and rounded without the usual drawbacks of a traditional biography. We understand the basic elements of her life and reasoning for abandoning her life, but her grief and descent into addiction are never explicitly or wisely fleshed out. We witness the tragedy and hardship in her life, but it's also clear Cheryl is firmly the agent of her own destruction as she takes dramatic steps to leave it behind.
Vallée takes an episodic approach to Strayed's life as we follow her hike across America and 1,100 mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail flashing back to memories of her mother, her spiral into sex and drug addiction as she breaks herself down in nature. Wild is not entirely as it seems as Vallée, Hornby, and Witherspoon have created a compelling story of human struggle wrapped in an inspiring outdoor adventure.
Wild screened at the opening gala of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.
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