You know that advice about not running away from your problems? Well, obviously Cheryl Strayed never fully learned that mantra as evident in her decision to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to the border of Washington. Part punishment for past transgressions and part quest for self-discovery, this epic adventure follows Strayed, a washed-up addict haunted by the loss of her mother, on her path to renewal.
Wild was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who, along with screenwriter Nick Hornby, worked closely with the real Cheryl Strayed in adapting her New York Times-best-selling memoir to the big screen. Strayed was even asked to be present on set for the filming of the movie, an offer which she frequently took advantage of. Such a collaboration between an author and a movie crew is refreshing, especially when the story is so personal to Strayed.
While Vallée established himself as a talented director with Dallas Buyers Club in 2013 and now this, it’s Reese Witherspoon starring as Cheryl Strayed that really steals the show. This is without a doubt her best performance to date. Embodying the emotional distress of a grieving daughter, a cheating divorcée and a washed-up druggie, Witherspoon is both raw and authentic. Everything down to her evocative voiceovers is terrific.
The film regularly cuts between showcasing the stunning natural beauty of the PCT and glimpsing back into Strayed’s past. Throughout the journey, these flashbacks display memories of happier days spent with her mom as well as her painful encounters with love, death, rough sex and hard drugs. Gradually, and in no particular chronological order, these scenes eventually piece together a kaleidoscope of her former life. These seemingly bygone dreams are a stark contrast to Strayed’s gritty struggles along the trail.
It doesn’t seem to be the message of the film, but Wild certainly has something to say about modern society’s standards of female independence. One of the reasons Strayed’s trek became so popular was because of its novelty. She met one woman while hiking the PCT— just one. Women don’t enjoy the same privileges as men when travelling alone like that, a reality that Vallée frequently illustrates with great suspense. Not only are women more likely to be assaulted, but oftentimes, they are held back by taking care of children or looking after loved ones. Before her death, Strayed’s mother echoes the laments of many women today, that she never once felt like she was in the driver’s seat of her own life.
The beauty of this story is that Strayed never tries boil it down to a list of advice. The book and the film aren’t a self-help lesson, nor do they offer a pat on the back. They tell the story of a woman who was truly and utterly broken and they tell it with accuracy and detail. But when Strayed finally finds peace, when she is able to let go and accept her adversities, she’s not telling us how she did it. She’s telling us that its possible and that it’s beautiful. I don’t think that this movie will fundamentally change people’s lives, at least not on any grandiose scale; however, I do think that it will inspire people.