Following a divorce, the death of her mother and years of destructive behaviour and drug addiction, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) decides to heal herself by hiking solo for than a thousand miles across the Pacific Crest Trail.

Based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Witherspoon finds herself in worthy adaptation.

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: As we waited for the screening of Wild to begin, a few TIFF volunteers behind me discussed the problem of adapting books for the screen. It’s all those details in the book, one said, that a film can never capture. That’s why the book is always better, another added. Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller has inspired in its fans the kind of devotion not seen since Eat, Pray, Love. Among those fans are Oprah Winfrey, who chose the book to reboot her famous book club, and Reese Witherspoon, who optioned the rights and now stars in the movie about Strayed’s audacious 1600 kilometre hike along the American west coast’s Pacific Crest Trail. (Full disclosure: Strayed is a professional acquaintance.)

Witherspoon is a producer of Wild, which is directed by Dallas Buyer Club’s Jean-Marc Vallée; Nick Hornby adapted the script. It’s a formidable team, but in this case as well, is the book always better? Wild is not just faithful to but formally interested in its source material, from its rolling flashback/forward structure to its vividly impressionistic use of sound and imagery to conjure the axis between memory and reality. The film begins more bluntly, with a bit of body horror: Perched on a cliff side, Cheryl (Witherspoon) yanks off a red-laced hiking boot and peels away bloodied socks to reveal a big toenail about to separate from her foot. The boots skids down the cliff, abandoning its owner, and a brief, obscene tantrum ensues.

From there, Wild moves backward, to Cheryl’s decision, at age 26, to spend three months walking from point A, across two states to point B. There is a diffident ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski) on the phone and a massive backpack waiting in her hotel room. The scene of Witherspoon grappling under the weight of this literal burden, then at length staggering to her feet, awkward but triumphant, suggests what is to come—a redemption narrative, a journey from lost to found, per the bestselling book’s subtitle.

As he demonstrated with Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée has a knack for meliorating the slickness of Oscar vehicles with a personal, even idiosyncratic touch. Witherspoon’s is a bravura performance of a different type that led Matthew McConaughey to the awards podium. There is less flash to the story and central character of Wild; Witherspoon depicts a woman in retreat from the world and into herself, less lonely alone in the wild, as she points out, than she is in her “real life”. The story behind this retreat is unextraordinary: after her mother’s death, when Cheryl was in college, Cheryl lost her bearings and descended into promiscuity, drugs, and benumbed detachment.

Or maybe ‘descent’ isn’t the right word. In a redemption narrative it is necessary to characterise such behaviour as the cause, and not the symptom, of a character’s complaint. As Cheryl points out, sex and heroin did their jobs quite nicely, and that they weren’t sustainable behaviours doesn’t mean she wouldn’t do it all again, just the same way. It’s a fascinating perspective—one characteristic of Strayed’s meticulously honest approach to personal storytelling. Wild can only gesture toward such complexity; instead the film is carried by lines that stand on firmer, more Oprah-friendly terrain, such as Cheryl’s vow to “walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was”.

Her mother, as played by Laura Dern, is a figure of both worship and consternation for Cheryl, the love of her life and object of her resentment. Witherspoon is most convincing in her moments of ambiguity as she flickers between impulses, unsure which one will prevail. If the hike lacks in moments of outsize adventure, Vallée concentrates on moments of grace, and most productively on the greatest threat Cheryl faces on the trail—her fellow, almost exclusively male hikers. In several scenes, Vallée takes his time excavating the tension of Cheryl’s encounters with various men, tracing the evaluations she must conduct before deciding how to proceed. In those moments both her vulnerability and her determination—both equally tremendous—are never more apparent.

In some moments the expert editing (at two hours, the film is impeccably paced) makes certain connections feel too pat, as though grief should lead, as a matter of course, to heroin abuse. For the most part, though, what we understand about Cheryl is communicated with great care, in a dreamy, frequently witty layering of sound and images, past and present that lingers well beyond the film’s stirring final moments.



Watch 'Wild'

Tuesday 23 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2014
Genre: Drama, Biography
Language: English
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, Michiel Huisman

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