(dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)
|Fox Searchlight Pictures|
“What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here?”
After his success with last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, Jean-Marc Vallee explores a markedly different, but no less transformative tale with the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Struggling with the loss of her mother, a heroin and sex addiction, and a divorce, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) decides to hike alone, for over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in order to heal and find herself again.
The film is far more of a scenic, personal journey than a plot driven narrative. As a result there aren’t many noteworthy supporting characters. Though Laura Dern gives a solid, if underused performance as Strayed’s mom, the rest of the characters feel mostly ancillary, like snapshots on the road. Wild is largely a one woman show, and Witherspoon is given ample opportunity to stretch her acting skills in both the main film narrative and the flashbacks. The flashbacks which are mostly nonlinear and occasionally treated as fever dreams or deep moments of self-reflection, give Witherspoon the opportunity to portray the many sides of Strayed. Because of the film’s structure, Witherspoon as allowed to explore dramatic shifts in the character, ranging from the bitter, haughty college girl, the grieving daughter, the heroin addicted wreck, and finally the serene wanderer. All of these character shifts feel like necessary insights into the character but the flashbacks only provide glimpses into places and moments that I felt needed expansion. Strayed’s mother had such a profound effect on her, so profound that her death almost lead her to complete ruin, and yet I’m not convinced the film did the best possible job syncing up these facts with the narrative. In terms of the journey the audience is asked to witness, the film felt short to me and full of missed acting opportunities.
As with Dallas, Valle handles the seriousness of Strayed’s physical and emotional transformation with humor. Wild excels at creating a unique tone and refrains from slipping into the melodrama it could have so easily become. With the film’s lush scenic shots, and lingering looks at the landscape, there’s no debating that Wild isn’t a beautiful film. It’s also boasts a fantastic soundtrack that elevates certain scenes in the film. But despite all of these beautiful surface details, I still felt like something was missing. For me this came from the fact that memoirs are difficult to adapt because film can’t fully capture the internal narrative. The film attempts to solve this problem through the use of voiceovers and aforementioned flashbacks but I’m not sure they were entirely successful in capturing the character depth or emotional rapids that readers of the book were so captivated by. While I’m not one to stress over the necessity of adaptations, I am curious as to what the film offered that the book didn’t. Yes, Wild contains a wonderful performance by Witherspoon and Valle is a capable director but I felt like the movie through all of its shifting landscapes and shifting side characters, only provided me with a sketch rendering of Cheryl Strayed.
Wild is a solid book club movie that I think is probably a more rewarding experience for those who read Strayed’s memoir. It’s an enjoyable trek, and at times it’s even a heartbreakingly tender one, but it’s also ironically too tame for its own good sometimes. Wild is admirable in its attempts, but I can’t help but wish there was something more substantial to hold onto.