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WILD (review)

Review by Caitlyn Thompson
Produced by Bruna Papandrea, 
Bill Pohlad, Reese Witherspoon
Screenplay by Nick Hornby
Based on Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, 
Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, 
Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, 
Charles Baker, Brian Van Holt, Jan Hoag

I didn’t know what to expect from Wild.

I knew it was a about a woman on a hike. An intense hike. And I prayed it wouldn’t be some feel-good “I’m discovering how happy life can be and how wondrous nature is” film.

And it wasn’t.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s depiction of Cheryl Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is an enthralling journey.

It’s jarring, beautiful, and a really intense emotional experience of the paralyzing impacts of grief and guilt, much more so than the experience of hiking.

After four years of grief-driven sexual exploits and drug use, triggered by the early death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed is at rock bottom. It seems clear that her hike is meant to cleanse her of her wrongdoings, but that’s not what it does.

Wild is about acceptance more so than moral victory. We don’t see the character become a better person throughout this trip and we aren’t meant to see her do so, so much as recognize her cowardice and relate to the crippling effects of grief.

There is no montage scene of triumph. The hike never gets easier. Cheryl never buffs up and runs up a mountainside smiling and proud. She remains exhausted the entire time. And appropriately so. She is paralyzed in her damaging lifestyle until she puts herself in an environment where she will ultimately be killed in some form or another if she doesn’t move forward.

And that’s why the film is so powerful.

Wild isn’t a movie where the character needs to get stronger to forge ahead, not physically anyway.

Instead, we get to watch Strayed accept and acknowledge her behavior. I never felt sympathetic towards her either. But as the film progressed, my respect for her definitely grew.

Reese Witherspoon delivers Strayed’s life story with flawless expertise. Makes me think her Oscar for June Carter Cash was silly. Her performance here is incomparable to her previous work. The actress uses her entire body to illustrate the defeat, exhaustion and self-hatred of Strayed. Witherspoon’s physical expression is much to be admired.

Contrasting Witherspoon’s performance is Laura Dern as her mother, Bobbi. Dern is lovely and soft, making Witherspoon that much more hard. Dern’s kindness is incredibly warm and enchanting and it’s impossible not to love and cherish her time on screen. Their relationship is so tragic because of Cheryl’s selfish attitude, her lack of understanding of her privilege and potential.

Jean-Marc Vallee doesn’t condone or condemn Strayed’s behavior through the camera, but merely opens the window to her satisfaction and shame as she experiences it. The direction feels neutral, not judgmental, which only enhances the emotion further.

The camera movement consistently maintains just the right amount of unease so as to never allow the audience to completely relax.

The editorial compilation of past and present pain is also incredible. Through soft and seamless transitions, we are guided through Cheryl’s mental and physical journey along the Pacific Crest Trail as well as her life leading up that point.

Typically, stories that deal with self-discovery are contrived and dull.

Wild is a personal story where the environment works as the backdrop to force some kind of movement, mental and physical. Cheryl Strayed isn’t battling her surroundings, she’s battling herself. The objective is to share the pain, understand and accept that pain, and acknowledge that it isn’t going to disappear from the past. It probably won’t disappear in the future either, but at least it might be managed in a productive manner.

Cheers to the beauty and pain of this film.

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