Last week I had the opportunity to see an early screening of Wild, the Fox Searchlight production starring Reese Witherspoon. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, which was released (and read widely by book clubs everywhere, including mine) in 2012. It tells the story of a period in Cheryl’s life after she’s lost (among other things) her mother to cancer, her husband to divorce, and much of what’s left of her own self to heroin. Seemingly on a whim, Cheryl vows to hike over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in a desperate attempt to find – as her mother hopes for her throughout her life – “the best version of [her]self and cling to it for all [she’s] worth.”
With such a heavy premise, it may seem strange that not only did the movie make me want to cry at points, but it also made me laugh out loud in several spots. I felt alternately jealous and judgmental of Cheryl; she would be so stupid one minute and so brave the next.* As a prepared person in general and also as someone who has done a few multi-day hikes (one long enough for a replenishment of supplies), Cheryl’s lack of preparation before starting out was both endearing and (honestly) terrifying. Not knowing what she was getting herself into, but also not seeming to care that much made her the kind of person you’d like to follow along with on the adventure while simultaneously thanking God that you hadn’t done it the way she had.
Many of the characters worked well and did their best to develop themselves in the short amount of screen time they had, although the viewer may be tempted at times to wonder if she ever met any “normal” people. Her encounters offer at some points a break from and at some points a reminder of the reasons Cheryl was on the trail in the first place, and they give her clarity, too, as is evidenced when she admits to a stranger that, “I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.” Reese Witherspoon herself did a wonderful job, and I imagine the real Cheryl Strayed was impressed with her performance.
The biggest drawback to the film version of this journey was (and I’m sure this is a common refrain for many books-turned-movies) that it had to fit everything into just a couple of hours. In the book, each encounter is more deeply explored; the emotions you feel stay with you longer. I was anxious and heartbroken and inspired and horrified without knowing just how long the particular situation would last or how it would end. And perhaps it’s because I read the book before that I was not as entrenched in the story this time around, but whatever the reason, while I definitely enjoyed it, (say it with me) the movie wasn’t as good as the book.
Speaking of clichés, some elements of the film did feel a bit trite, such as when enlightenment comes to Cheryl in the form of an angelic little boy with a knack for singing haunting lullabies, but because so many of the events were based on Cheryl’s real experiences, who am I to say it didn’t actually happen that way? There are also plenty of bumper-sticker-/needlepoint- worthy phrases throughout, although I will be the first to admit that clichés are usually clichés for a reason and when they do appear, they generally work in this story.
Overall, I really enjoyed the film and thought it well done, especially considering the difficulty in depicting frequent flashbacks in a way that doesn’t detract from the flow of the present story. While many viewers may not be able to relate exactly to Cheryl’s struggle, most will be able to identify with the recurring theme of the benefits of going through something difficult and finding out more about yourself in the midst of that difficulty.
For those of you who might be interested in the appropriateness of this movie for certain audiences, I will say it’s rated R for a reason. Several reasons, actually, including (but I’m sure not limited to)** language, nudity, drug use, and domestic violence.
(Also: a couple of random things to watch for if you do go see the film: Reese’s bracelet and watch switch wrists in a couple of takes early on in the movie (I’m not sure about later on – I stopped watching for it), and Cheryl Strayed herself makes an appearance—see if you can spot her. I’m a sucker for pictures of the real people during the credits, so stick around for those, too.)
*I often wonder if those two adjectives are actually the same and just defined by whether the outcome of the situation is negative or positive.
**Derek says I have a knack for forgetting awkward or inappropriate parts of movies, thereby inadvertently recommending them to people who would definitely not appreciate those elements. So I include this in part to protect myself from any omissions, but also to apologize to anyone I may have unintentionally led astray in the past. 🙂