Wednesday, January 21, 2015
A woman named Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) lies on the floor of a cheap California motel. Cheryl is being pinned to the floor by a huge hiker's backpack, the pack that she must struggle to put on and then carry with her on a 3-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The image of Cheryl under her pack foreshadows much of what's to come in Wild, the film based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir, but more crucially it also gets at why I felt more warmly towards Jean-Marc Vallee's film than I did towards its source material. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl as barely hanging on, overcome by memories of her beloved late mother (Laura Dern, making the most of a little screen time), and not too far removed from a divorce and subsequent period of drug abuse. Strayed's book was told in alternating chapters, jumping from her adventures with too-small boots, eccentric fellow hikers, and that pack into memories of a tumultuous childhood and her mother's battle with cancer. It isn't right to begrudge another person their grief, but it is fair to talk about the way they choose to share it with us. In the book both Strayed's grief and her guilt over the failure of her marriage to the kindly Paul (Thomas Sadoski) were worried over and shined to a high gloss, presented as shining examples of those two emotions. Strayed's style becomes tiresome after a while, especially since in the alternate chapters we're reading about how her naivete as a hiker almost got her killed.
Wild is an example of not knowing to whom to give credit for what you like about a film. The basic structure of the story is kept to, but do we have Jean-Marc Vallee to thank for the stream of consciousness style? Memories flow in the present with in quick, jagged cuts that mirror Cheryl's mental state. At one moment we're in Cheryl's tent and the next moment in her mother's kitchen or in Paul's car after he has rescued her from a heroin-fueled interlude. Screenwriter Nick Hornby and editor Martin Pensa must have to do with the film's vision too, though it isn't a surprise to learn Vallee also edited under a pseudonym. Cheryl's emotional fragility is played against the sheer, cleansing effort that her journey requires. There are rivers and rocks to cross and a tent to manage and water to filter and a thousand other things, to say nothing of the natural conditions (from desert to snow) that must be dealt with. Just like Cheryl we are humbled by the journey and that's the point, but what plays as an outdoor adventure story for us was for Cheryl a trip that had to be taken. Of course Wild is an emotional journey as well, but the film never tacks towards pure sentiment until a late scene when Cheryl hears an old song sung by a child (Evan O'Toole) she meets on the trail. It's a moment (taken from the book) that could seem contrived, but Reese Witherspoon saves it with some gorgeous underplaying. Witherspoon produced Wild and her performance along with her turn in Inherent Vice marks a turn towards complicated characters that could serve her well. Wild is a grown-up film about growing up that has much on its mind, and it works because its producer and star proves her worth in both roles.