With the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed has lost all hope. After years of reckless, destructive behavior, she makes a rash decision. With absolutely no experience, driven only by sheer determination, Cheryl hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddens, strengthens, and ultimately heals her.
There’s something instinctual about the human desire to quit, rather than face an arduous challenge. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. At times, it’s a survival instinct. It can just as easily, though, be the worst thing for us. Rather than persevere through something painful in an attempt to come out stronger, it can become all too easy to just accept a current situation.
That drive, and fighting the desire to quit, is what defines the journey of Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Even though she has no real hiking experience, Cheryl sees this trip as her chance at rebooting her life. By hiking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl hopes to find her way back to a person worthy of her mother’s hopes and dreams for her. It’s the one way she can see to try and escape the rock bottom her life has reached.
And it’s certainly a rock bottom. Cheryl’s last name, Strayed, is one she chose for herself following the dissolution of her marriage, a result of a lengthy string of affairs and heavy drug use. This, in turn, is a result of her mother’s quick and surprising death after a cancer diagnosis. But as Cheryl discovers over the course of her trip, her issues stretch further back than these events. Her mother, Bobbi, worked her entire life to make Cheryl into someone whose position in life was better than her own, only to have Cheryl become a woman who can casually, almost cheerfully say, “It must be strange that I’m so much more sophisticated than you.” Damn.
There’s certainly a way this could have turned into a Lifetime Original Movie. Instead, the film provides an intriguing look at rediscovery. At the center of this is Reese Witherspoon’s unvarnished take as Cheryl. Witherspoon is one of my favorite actresses, but after making her breakthrough in Legally Blonde over a decade ago, she’s frequently fallen into “safe” roles that play to her strength: her charm. Cheryl is not a safe role, and there’s no attempt shown to soften her edges. See that line I referenced earlier, or the way the film’s flashbacks show just how far Cheryl fell into drugs and promiscuity in an attempt to feel something – anything.
Cheryl is not defined by any singular characteristic. If anything, she’s one of the most three-dimensional characters shown on film this year. She’s strong at times, and weak at others. Her interactions along the trail show her fears – sometimes justified, other times not – and her ability to take charge. She can be kind or cruel. Most tellingly, these different aspects all feel natural coming from the same source.
While Witherspoon carries the majority of the film herself, she’s paired with a couple of great actors for some key roles. Most notable is Laura Dern as Bobbi, whose love and compassion for Cheryl doesn’t obscure the obvious pain she carries with her at various times during their lives. Thomas Sadoski also works well as Cheryl’s ex-husband, who is still kind to her even in the aftermath of their divorce.
As director, Jean-Marc Vallée takes material that’s more about the characters than the visuals, and manages to make Cheryl’s journey fresh over the course of the film’s runtime. He’s aided by Nick Hornby’s terrific script, which manages to find (dark) humor throughout Cheryl’s journey.
At the end of her trek, Cheryl gains a new perspective. Her past isn’t wiped away; instead, she learns that her past doesn’t have to dictate the direction of her life going forward. It’s a smarter take than most films might attempt, and it’s one that’s truer to life.