At first glance, “Wild” sounds like another of those literary stunts that have become so common: Girl heals psychological wounds by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, then cashes in with a book about the event. That characterization is not just, however. Cheryl Strayed, the subject of the film and author of the book on which it is based, is not a serial puller of stunts. She already had a career as a writer when, many years after the event, she decided to tell the story of her PCT hike.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl in the film. We meet Cheryl as she embarks on her long-distance trek, with an overloaded pack and ill-fitting boots. As she makes her painful start, we learn through flashbacks that since her mom (Laura Dern) died of cancer, Cheryl has been spiraling out of control, drinking and drugging with a series of random men. The hike started as an impulse purchase of a PCT trail guide, and it blossomed into a backbreaking, blister-inducing reality, an opportunity to start over and clean up her act.
“Wild” does a nice job portraying the hardships of backpacking, including the blistered feet and the bruised hips (from the pack straps.) The film is also beautifully shot, stunningly depicting the various landscapes through which Strayed hiked. Witherspoon gamely allows herself to appear as grubby and sweaty as one does after several days on the trail without a shower. She also displays the very realistic wariness with which a woman, alone and unarmed, would approach any men she encountered in the wilderness. Overall, Witherspoon does a nice job with Strayed's ups and downs, and I think she probably deserved her Oscar nomination for the role.
It goes without saying that Cheryl's Odyssey proves to be a life-changing experience, one that helps get her life back on track. “Wild” is perhaps guilty of wrapping this narrative a bit too neatly, but overall I think the film (and presumably the book) deserves credit for not overplaying Cheryl's salvation. Men are a bad habit for Cheryl, and at the beginning of her hike, we see her considering picking up yet another guy. Later, however, towards the end of her trek, Cheryl hooks up with a guy she meets in town. In a lesser film, this scene would have led to a scene depicting shame and a resolution to never have another one-night-stand. In “Wild,” Cheryl doesn't have to be punished for her sexuality. Similarly, we see that Cheryl has a history of drug use, including heroin, but the movie doesn't indulge in a withdrawal scene. Ultimately, Cheryl's problems are not drug addiction or promiscuity, but her underlying grief and loneliness, and her journey is really about coming to terms with those.
4 stars out of 5