wildDirector: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writer: Nick Hornby

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gabby Hoffman, Thomas Sadowski

As a high school English teacher, I have a soft spot for films that look to inspire the individual spirit in the name of Romanticism and transcendentalism. Still, one can have too much of a good thing. Films like Cast Away, Dead Poets Society, Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries, and 127 Hours are just a few films that successfully explored the dangerous beauty that is our natural world. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Nick Hornby bring just enough passion, beauty, and emotion to their adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail to keep this film from being too ordinary.

Reese Witherspoon plays the real life Cheryl Strayed, a waitress and self proclaimed sophisticate who when life throws her a curveball, decides to ruin her life further with promiscuous sex and hard drugs. Marriage ruined, family and friends alienated, Cheryl finally hits rock bottom and when a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook catches her eye, Cheryl decides to drop everything and take on the 1100 mile hike in the hopes of reclaiming her life and finding some harmony.

Comparisons to Christopher McCandless’s story in the film/novel Into the Wild are hard to avoid. Similarly, like McCandless, Witherspoon’s character is trying to escape the corruption of modern life with a voluntary long-term immersion into nature. Much of what Strayed is running from directly relates to a catastrophic series of events involving her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). Bobbi was a woman of considerable spirit and clearly what Cheryl is truly looking for is where, deep within her, is that same spirit that her mother possessed?

Wild is a surprising film of perseverance and beauty, and Witherspoon plays a character as far from Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods as possible. Unlike many films of this genre, Wild spends more time examining the human instinct and its conflict with reason. This is what makes it most compelling and oddly most relatable. We don’t have to agree with Cheryl’s choices, and we don’t have to understand them, but we can certainly empathize with them. At each mile marker on the Pacific Crest Trail (referred to as the PCT), Strayed leaves short passages from self-proclaimed Romantic poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as well as those labeled Romantics like Robert Frost and James Michener. The distinction is subtle, but far more relevant to Strayed as she searches for her identity amongst what her instinct suggests and how reason advises.

Wild is a real showcase for Witherspoon. Where Walk the Line demonstrated the actress’s range and singing talent, Wild shows she is a real force. Laura Dern is superb as well, playing a mother but also a metaphor for idealism. The one area of disappointment with Wild is in its final scene, which strives for epiphany and comes up short. There is great strength in Wild and great heart. Quite honestly, this film resonated with me more than last year’s Oscar darling, Dallas Buyers Club, but originality does count for something, and this film does not have much in that arena. Still, Wild is an inspiring film and a great step forward for Witherspoon.  A-

Wild is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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