There was no small number of challenges stacked against Wild, the new feature film from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée. The plot follows a young woman on a three-month-long and very solitary journey from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border. Even its source material was a built-in hurdle. The film is based on the beloved and best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, and many will come to Wild familiar with its characters and clutching tight to their expectations. But Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education, About a Boy) managed an epic feat with this one, delivering a succinct two-hour retelling that both honors and lives up to its first edition.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl as a twenty-something divorcée hoping to pull herself out of a downward spiral of drugs, sex, and self-loathing by embarking on a 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Through a slowly unfolding series of flashbacks, we learn that Cheryl’s self-destructive streak stemmed most directly from the death of her mother, Bobbi (brilliantly portrayed by Laura Dern), who lost her short battle with cancer when Cheryl was just 21.
As director, Vallée smartly interweaves shots of the journey with Cheryl’s recollections, stemming from her childhood all the way through to the gratuitous trysts that ended her marriage. Smash-cut into key moments in Cheryl’s journey, these asides gradually build a much larger picture about the girl with the enormous backpack. They’ll also surely speak to anyone who’s ever spent a prolonged period of time alone with their thoughts.
On the performance end, Witherspoon beautifully conveys Cheryl’s swirling combination of fear, remorse, and self-hate. Meanwhile Dern delivers a subtle, nuanced take on Bobbi’s own quiet struggle against an abusive husband. And taken in combination, their stories move Wild from an independent case study to a gripping, gritty look at what’s hiding behind the face of strong women everywhere.
In the end, Wild is a near-perfect film about the inherent imperfections of life, love, and family. And, much like the book, its empowering magic will stick with you long after its final scene.