Biography | Drama
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
R | 115 min
Cheryl Strayed is alone on a cliff. She’s been walking and, when she removes her boots, you see how blistered her feet are. One boot falls over the edge of the cliff. After a moment of blind panic, as Cheryl no doubt wonders how she will make it through the desert without shoes, she watches the boot tumble with resignation, then throws her other shoe after it with a wild scream.
Wild is the true story of Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.
The film, based on Strayed’s 2012 bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl, a tortured soul who decides to hike the trail alone in an attempt to exercise her demons and become the kind of woman her mother would have wanted her to be.
Shot on location in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, the film applies the same memory-driven narrative as the written memoir. By way of frequent flashbacks, we catch glimpses into Cheryl’s life. The technique is clever, intertwining past with present. We see Cheryl’s reckless behavior . . . the sex with strangers and heroin use . . . the end of her marriage . . . the death of her mother.
Cheryl’s relationship with her mother is volatile. Cheryl’s mother, Barbara Bobbi Grey, played by Laura Dern, is a positive, free-loving spirit who, after an abusive marriage, is raising her two children on her own. Barbara puts on a happy face despite everything. Cheryl finds it annoying. She confronts her mother, “Don’t you see how poor we are?” Barbara’s response is a cheerful, “We are rich with love.” When Barbara enrolls in the same college Cheryl attends, Cheryl all but ignores her in the halls. Cheryl later apologizes saying she didn’t mean to do it, but she did. She’s embarrassed and angry. She blames her mother for staying in an abusive marriage, for coddling her brother, for not having money . . . for everything, really.
All Cheryl wants to do is escape. And escape she does.
Cheryl’s journey is more than just a hike along the PCT. With so much time alone, there’s a lot of time to think. She travels inward and revisits her past. Though the rosy glow of nostalgia sometimes clouds memories, another story unfolds. We see happy childhood days spent with a mother who reads, laughs, and plays her with her children. Barbara’s love is evident in every scene.
It’s not an easy journey. Cheryl has moments of doubt and fear. She meets a stranger on the trail she thinks might be shifty, as well as others who actually are. She suffers physical pain and crippling emotional despair. She has to fend for herself, and the circumstances are sometimes overwhelming. It is a lonely trek, but as Cheryl tells one person she meets, “I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.” She struggles with the truth—the reality of her relationship with her mother and how the emptiness she felt was self-inflicted as she kept those who loved her most at arm’s length and, ultimately, drove them away.
Witherspoon’s performance is spot on. She’s at once both tough and vulnerable . . . utterly believable in the part. Dern, too, is perfection as Cheryl’s mother wrapping the character in tenderness and warmth.
It’s a terrific film filled with grit, wit, and unwavering honesty . . . a striking and memorable portrayal of a troubled young woman in search of herself.
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