Jean-Marc Valleé’s film, Wild, is based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, which documents the story of a young woman whose life deteriorates after the death of her mother, and who chooses to set out on a 1,100-mile hike as a way of healing her soul.
Stories about ‘self discovery’ can feel derivative, but Valleé tells this story with enough hallucinatory style that Wild mostly avoids that trap. It helps that Cheryl embarks on her journey as a conscious choice to try to rediscover herself – thus removing the sense of didacticism that can plague this kind of film – and that Reese Witherspoon is terrific in the role. The best she’s been in a long time, in fact – probably since Walk the Line.
Valleé weaves Cheryl’s memories in and out of the travails of her hike, creating a believable and affecting impression of a wandering mind. But the film itself is tightly constructed, dropping in bits of information where needed, and at other times sitting back and allowing the hike to progress. The journey itself is not filled with great physical dramas, but the film feels dramatic because it works as a portrayal of a healing mind. It’s far from a one-person show – Cheryl interacts with others both in flashback and on the trail – but the film is resolutely Witherspoon’s, as it should be. Pleasingly, most of the encounters on her journey are fleeting; the most meaningful supporting roles are generally the ghosts of the past, in particular her mother (Laura Dern). The mother character is portrayed a little simplistically, and with dashes of cheese here and there, but Dern makes it work.
Ultimately it’s down to Witherspoon to convey Cheryl’s journey, and she hits pretty much all the marks, from an amusing early scene in which she struggles to stand up with all her gear – a lovely dash of physical humour – to the more emotional notes of the final third. She also has to carry most of the flashbacks, and does so with aplomb. It’s only really the abrupt ending when the film falters – wrapping things up a little too quickly and easily with an on-the-nose voiceover.
The real life photographs of the Cheryl’s journey, which accompany the end credits, are a nice touch, even if there are a lot more smiles there than in Valleé’s adaptation. Wild is tough when it needs to be, but understands that the real weight of Cheryl’s journey is internal, rather than physical. It makes for an engaging, emotionally resonant piece of filmmaking.