Wild, a film by Jean-Marc Vallee, tells the story of a woman who backpacks the Pacific Crest Trail. One of the things I like about it is that it pays attention to little mundane details, like what exactly you should put in a pack, what kind of boots to wear, and how to keep yourself supplied along the way. It’s based on a book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, recounting the hike she made in the 1990s from the Mojave Desert all the way to Washington State, more than a thousand miles, remarkable because she had never done any serious hiking before.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl, whom we first meet in the middle of the story, stopping her hike in pain near a cliff, taking off one of her boots and discovering that her toenail is coming off, then accidentally dropping the boot off the cliff. Flashbacks then tell us how she got there. Devastated by the death of her mother from cancer, Cheryl spiraled into compulsive anonymous sexual encounters, her infidelity eventually destroying her marriage, followed by a heroin habit that almost finished her. Happening to notice a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, she somehow got the notion of hiking its length in order to, as she put it, “walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was.” It’s a foolish, impulsive decision, but Witherspoon, breaking away from the cutesy persona she has sometimes relied on in other movies, makes you believe it.
Those who have hiked for any length of time will get a kick out of the scene where the rookie puts together her absurdly heavy backpack in a motel room before setting off in the morning. There are quite a few humorous touches like that, that spotlight the mistakes that a novice hiker would make, and the little learning experiences that go along with them.
The long and arduous journey is punctuated by flashbacks detailing Cheryl’s relationship with her brother, her ex-husband, and most especially her mother Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. Dern was a good choice for the role—with her awkward, sometimes goofy way of expressing herself, she is not somebody’s ideal mother, but more like the real kind that an adolescent girl might very well be embarrassed by. I have to say, in my opinion, that Vallee relies on these flashbacks too often; I would have liked more of a sense of the plodding exhaustion of a long backpacking trip, when the days start to blend into one another, although admittedly this is a difficult thing for a film to convey.
Witherspoon, however, brings off this tough, grieving young woman with a lot of heart and a plain directness of style that works wonders. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is intelligent and insightful, and the wonders of nature are captured perfectly by Vallee and his cinematographer, Yves Belanger. I also liked how the film dealt with the inevitable fears, unfortunately often justified, that a women hiking alone must experience when she encounters men along the way.
Wild is a lovely little film, uniting in its texture the beauty of the outdoors with the voyage of a grieving heart seeking to heal.