Less a journey about survival and more one about personal discovery, Wild tells the true-to-life tale of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), based on her own book, which chronicles the 1,100-mile hike that is the Pacific Crest Trail. After several events in her own life made her feel like she was losing her way, she set off on this three-plus-month hike alone in order to find herself and overcome mental obstacles that were leading her down a negative road full of poor choices.
Those events involve the loss of her mother (Laura Dern), an abusive childhood, heroin use, and promiscuous sex that led to a pregnancy. Now she’s hiking through desert, woods, and snow in order to grow as a person and become the woman that she knows her mother wanted her to be. About three quarters of the film follows Cheryl on this journey, while the rest consists of flashbacks triggered by certain events in her journey that fill us in on all of the things that happened in her life to bring her to this point.
We follow the 90+ days of her journey over two hours, which often means we’re skipping forward in time. Sometimes we skip weeks. Only important events are shown. Days presumably go by where nothing much happens. Sometimes we get an inner monologue which tells us how Cheryl is feeling at any given moment. Sometimes she talks to a fox that seems to be following her. She also writes in a diary, and occasionally encounters other hikers. We always know how Cheryl is feeling about her journey and how she’s growing as a person.
Outside of this, Wild is a very straightforward film that both serves as an inspirational tale that might just make you reevaluate your own life, and also a reminder that Reese Witherspoon can be really good at this acting thing, and that she wants another Oscar nomination. Given that she co-produced the film, one has to think that she knew that this type of role could get her many accolades — and it will. Maybe she also believed that this is a story that needs telling but one has to think the former served as greater motivation.
Yes, Witherspoon is really good. She will get nominated for an Oscar and very well might have a chance at winning. Witherspoon turns in what might be career-best work with Wild. It’s not a particularly showy performance, even though it’s designed to showcase the acting talent of its star. But it’s soulful and heartfelt, fully realized and multi-dimensional. You find yourself rooting for Cheryl even though she doesn’t really need our help. Whether or not she’s going to succeed in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is never really in doubt.
It’s not that kind of movie. It’s about the personal discovery and growth. The hike just gives her lots of time to think, reminisce, and come to conclusions about herself and the way she’s lived her life. You wind up thinking, too, on your own life. Some members of the audience might think of going on a soul-searching hike of their own after seeing Wild.
Wild is surprisingly funny and always compelling, which makes it really easy to overlook some of its problems, like how epiphanies wind up happening at only the most convenient of times, how Cheryl is rarely actually in any danger in the wilderness, or how the film is very straightforward and its main arc is pretty basic. That’s what strong filmmaking and a great leading performance can do for you. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, in top form, and Reese Witherspoon is great. The direction and acting are so good that the not-exactly-amazing screenplay is easy to overlook. The film works, and works well, in spite of that.
Wild is an effective film about one woman’s journey to self-discovery. She goes on a lengthy hike which allows her time to think on her past and figure out a way to move forward. It’s compelling cinema. It’s both dramatic and funny, and will hold your attention for its entire running time. It does this thanks to strong directing and a fantastic well-realized performance from Reese Witherspoon, both of which let you overlook how the film is pretty simple and a bit too convenient. Wild is inspirational, very enjoyable, and well worth your time.