Wild, based off Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about walking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), portrays the grueling journey she took at 26 from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. Devastated by the loss of her mother to cancer, Cheryl’s life quickly spirals downward as she begins having sex with anyone who asks and falls into drug addiction. After her marriage falls apart and she’s hit rock bottom, a book about the PCT inspires Cheryl to take up the hike and walk herself back to the woman her mother raised.
Reese Witherspoon is the center of the film, playing Cheryl with more honesty than the actress has shown since her role as June Carter-Cash in Walk the Line. Witherspoon’s Cheryl is a woman completely undone by grief. She’s messy and complex in a way that female characters are almost never allowed to be, even in films based off true events. She cheats on her husband too many times to count, is weak, is immature, and is angry; but she’s also brave, determined, and ultimately a hero. Witherspoon’s performance is grounded and beautiful, and most importantly impossible to not sympathize with.
Wild is already being praised for being such a strong feminist film, but it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t take that facet of itself too seriously. Cheryl is a wonderfully well-rounded female character that has all the intricacies that are typically only given to male protagonists. She’s also a blatantly sexual being, having encounters that are both positive and negative, but are all her own choice. In fact, everything Cheryl does in the film is by her own choice. Although her mother’s death is the unexpected event that throws everything else in Cheryl’s life into crisis, every step that Cheryl takes after that is deliberate. It’s refreshing to see a female character that forges her own path rather than just be swept up in the course of events.
The mother-daughter relationship in Wild gives the film both its strongest and most flawed moments. Laura Dern shines in the brief flashbacks she shares with Witherspoon – even though there’s only 9 years between the actresses in real life, the two are absolutely believable as a mother-daughter pair. It’s clear that this film is really a love story between them. However, the film loses some of its naturalism in certain scenes when Cheryl’s mother appears after death as a ghostly apparition. It’s clear that she’s meant to serve as a reminder to Cheryl about the path that she should be on, but these moments feel incredibly artificial next to the honesty that’s so apparent in the rest of the film.
As a testament to the restorative power of nature, Wild absolutely succeeds. The cinematography completely envelops the viewer in the environments that Cheryl is hiking through, whether they’re the boiling Mojave or the lush rainforests of Oregon. Even though Cheryl huffs, puffs, and curses through the trail, fighting not to turn back all the time, the hike forces Cheryl to deal with the past four years of her life and come to terms with her choices.
Wild, for all its focus on Cheryl finding herself again, isn’t actually a film about redemption – at least not in the usual sense of the word. Cheryl doesn’t do anything in particular that “makes up” for the past several years of destructive behavior. She doesn’t make any grand gesture to apologize and redeem herself in the eyes of all those she’s hurt. In fact, there’s nothing especially noble about taking several months to hike alone in the wilderness. What Wild is about, however, is a single woman’s journey to accept herself – what she did, what has already happened in her life, and that all of it was okay. Cheryl’s life may not be perfect or pretty, but it is wild. It’s the kind of female-centered story that Hollywood needs more of today.