Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction of Cheryl Strayed’s compelling, saddening and ultimately inspiring story is, like what Strayed went through, a journey. Not just a journey because we are infact watching the author’s trail across America. But a journey because we, as an audience, gain something while watching. Not only do we watch as Strayed (portrayed by Witherspoon in a career-defining role) addresses her own issues and accepts that past events have not hindered her, but shaped her, by watching the development of Cheryl on her adventure we personally come to recognise some of our own pivotal moments in life.
Cheryl’s story is somewhat tumultuous, which ultimately led to her deciding to embark on the Pacific Crest Trail. Having lost her loving and energetic Mother at the age of 22 Strayed’s marriage broke down and she started to use heroin as a way of coping. After coming to the realization that she was destroying herself she went on a 94 day trek from Mexico to Oregon to, as her Mother used to say, “Put herself in the way of beauty.”. The rewarding aspect about a true story is we are easily able to relate our own life to the person on screen. Witherspoon doesn’t over-act or dramatize Strayed, she characterizes her as a normal human being, devoid of unrealistic narrative traits which frequent movies – its a rare, but enjoyable attribute to character-driven features. Strayed’s intellect is displayed throughout, but never becomes overbearing and the choice to edit certain quotes from the author’s travels on screen fits well within the tone of the film – simple yet decidedly stylish when appropriate. Visual motifs brought in along the way serve as an excellent reminder of the importance of Strayed’s walk and the change in locale, represented perfectly through Yves Belanger’s uncomplicated yet stunning cinematography, is enough to inspire ones own wanderlust.
Laura Dern (who has somewhat made a come-back recently) and Witherspoon hold the film together and establish themselves as real contenders for the Academy Awards this year. The latter is almost unrecognizable as Strayed, for she is ferocious and bad-mouthed, with an underlying sweetness that the actress is better known for. Dern portrays Bobbi, Cheryl’s mother with such a warmth that you can’t help but adore her; her lustiness for life is infectious and you will find yourself imaging your own adventures come the end of the piece. Interestingly, and rather refreshingly, Cheryl is not particularly likeable at several intervals within the film and that says a lot for her character. What the viewer comes away with is an understanding of ones own power to recognise personal strength, and to act upon it when necessary. As Bobbi would remind Cheryl while growing up, “If I can teach you anything, it would be how to find your best self.”.
Vallee stands as a director taken by provocative real-life stories of people who in one way or another, find redemption. Strayed is brutally honest in regards to her back story and Vallee doesn’t shy away from this – if you are expecting a happy-go-lucky travel movie, this isn’t for you. If you appreciate honesty, grit and want to experience your own expedition, Wild will serve as an appropriate watch. Thank you Cheryl for sharing your story of self-acceptance, and, thank you Vallee for portraying that story quite remarkably.