- Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Stayed
- Laura Dern as Bobbi Grey
- Thomas Sadoski as Paul
- Michiel Huisman as Jonathan
- Kevin Rankin as Greg
Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who embarked upon a self-reflective journey to get her life back on track, Wild is a quietly stirring film that unfolds quite beautifully and gains excellence from a physically enduring performance from Reese Witherspoon.
We pick up with one Cheryl Strayed in 1995; a young woman hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Washington-Oregon border. Through flashbacks, we get to glimpse Cheryl’s life up to this point and what drove her to embark on this journey. The biggest event is the death of her beloved mother Bobbi, who always retained a positive outlook on life even when the odds were stacked against her. Her death subsequently left a hole in Cheryl’s life that she tried to fill with drug abuse and promiscuity. This had a knock on effect on her marriage to Paul, which ultimately ended in divorce when he couldn’t get through to her. Now on the journey, despite a lack of experience in hiking, Cheryl is attempting to forgive herself and come to terms with what her life has become after it fell completely apart. The journey she takes is one of both mental and physical anguish; her shoes are too small, she doesn’t have all the right materials and being a novice at hiking is not exactly helpful to her in the arduous voyage. Though she considers at various stops giving up because of how harsh and painful the journey is, something ultimately pulls her back and with the people she encounters, Cheryl grows stronger and finally begins to take stock of everything she has been through and the ways in which her travel will change her.
Films where characters go on journeys of self-discovery and change can often come off as saccharine and clichéd. Wild is thankfully not one of those films as it retains a natural quality that keeps it rooted in emotion and feeling throughout, without needing to go for big scenes of drama. Jean-Marc Vallée gives deep drops of intimacy to the proceedings through expressive close-ups and having Cheryl’s experience link to her past. He also isn’t afraid to show the darkness of Cheryl’s life in detail, where other films would shy away from doing so in order to keep something of a nice vibe. We are given the chance to witness Cheryl’s life, warts and all, and can really understand why she would want to just get away from all of it. Wild in itself is something of a contained story, which might seem strange as it is about a long trek, but what I mean is that the story is largely Cheryl’s and how events have impacted on her and her growth along the way. The film eschews bellowing histrionics for rumination and nuance( thanks to the assured direction of Jean-Marc Vallée and sensitive Nick Hornby script-which brings sprinkles of heart and small bits of humour to the film), which stand Wild in good stead as we gain a significant understanding of Cheryl through the flashbacks presented. And talking of flashbacks, the way they are placed within the narrative is seamlessly done and never becomes confusing as to which time frame we are in. From a visual standpoint, Wild is a lovely looking film, particularly at showing both the beauty and harshness of nature in the wilderness that can be very unpredictable. There are those out there who will sniff at Wild and say that not a lot happens within the story and that it isn’t anything particularly new. This is to miss the subtlety at work as everything is rooted in something of a realness that grows on you as the film continues. Quite a lot happens within the film, it just transpires in small vignettes of triumphs and tests that Cheryl must go through and endure to fully get herself together again. There are a few niggles in the narrative that slow it a bit, yet these are few and far between, as Wild stays on a relatively equal and level footing thanks to the talent both behind and in front of the camera. Music is used in a most complimentary fashion that joins together moments from the past with the present in Cheryl’s reveries.
Wild’s ace in the pack is Reese Witherspoon in a revealing performance that carries a large chunk of the film on her shoulders. She keeps Cheryl grounded in the long run of the story but also delves with nuances, into the wealth of emotional turmoil that still haunts her. I admired the way that Reese Witherspoon showed off a very different side to herself in this film; she really made the part feel organic and natural from the very first moment we glimpse her. She gives an authentic, raw and fearless energy to the part that displays Cheryl as flawed but still relatable to the audience as we understand her sadness and want her to succeed. It has to stand as one of her best performances, as it is mightily impressive watching her reflect and react to the things that have been thrown her way, both mentally and physically. Supporting Witherspoon is the lovely work from Laura Dern as her mother, largely seen in flashback. Dern projects such a ray of sunshine to the film that you can see why Cheryl would go into a real tailspin as her lifeline of happiness is gone. Thomas Sadoski is well cast as Cheryl’s ex who still tries to be of help to her, even after their divorce. Michiel Huisman and Kevin Rankin each play people Cheryl meets a long the way, and who each give her something to spur her on.
The odd wandering bit of film can be forgiven as Wild wisely retains a modesty and reflection that makes for a subtle yet moving film, headed by a commanding and committed Reese Witherspoon, in one of her best roles.