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Review: Wild

December 5, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Wild Poster

When Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) started hiking solo along the Pacific Crest Trail, she was battling multiple addictions and substance abuse problems in the wake of her failed marriage, and still grieving the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern).

Finding herself at a crossroads in her mostly stalled out life, she set out on this journey to quite literally move forward, her constant momentum and determination to complete the rigorous trek allowing plenty of time for both quiet reflection and reconciliation.

Cheryl Strayed’s journey became the subject of a bestselling memoir, subtitled From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and director Jean-Marc Vallée does justice to the material with Wild.  This is a strikingly mature and solidly crafted drama that is both heartbreaking and inspirational, offering genuine emotion through an intensely personal story of perseverance as well as self discovery and reinvention.

As set against the starkly beautiful natural landscapes, Cheryl Strayed’s journey is as much physical as it is emotional and even spiritual.  This is also a story about the unique encounters that she has with people and animals along the way, the often quiet and sometimes seemingly small events that ultimately helped put her life back on track.  And Wild is full of these beautiful little moments, with countless scenes that continue to resonate, including a profoundly moving encounter with a young boy late in the film.

Jean-Marc Vallée is a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of a story, as he proved with last year’s standout Dallas Buyers Club, which makes him a natural fit to bring Cheryl Strayed’s revealing memoir to the screen.  The director also has a gift for guiding his actors to stripped down and emotionally bare places, and Reese Witherspoon delivers one of her best performances in Wild.  The Oscar-winner fearlessly throws herself into the grittier aspects of this real life character, while also displaying fierce hope and determination to keep moving forward, no matter what the cost.

This is stirring work from the actress now entering the comeback stage of her already impressive career, revealing herself without makeup and in various states of undress, through quick cut montages of graphic sex and drug use that are easily the most explicit of her filmography.  But this is all done in service of the story, adding a feeling of authenticity to Wild that makes the final scenes that much more emotionally cathartic and powerful.  Seen through flashbacks that provide greater meaning for the central journey, Laura Dern delivers a deeply touching supporting performance, portraying Cheryl Strayed’s mother as a woman who radiates warmth and hope, despite having endured her own trials in life.

The cinematography breathtakingly captures the impressive scope of the natural landscapes, and the story comes together beautifully through some perfect editing, and an excellent screenplay by Nick Hornby.  The soundtrack is also commendable, a recognizable collection of pop songs that often take on new meaning through their placement in the film.  Both in terms of title and subject matter, not to mention the shared “based on a true story” origins, comparisons to Sean Penn’s 2007 triumph Into the Wild are expected and deserved.  But where that film ended on a note of heartbreak, the final moments of Wild evoke tears for a different reason.

There is something powerful about Cheryl Strayed’s journey that makes Wild so touching and relatable, a story of resilience and hope, even when giving up seems like the easier option.  This is a moving, engaging and achingly heartfelt film, the effects of which linger long after leaving the theatre.

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