WILD ….A Single Step


Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

Voyages of self discovery can be a notoriously tricky things. Stride too far in one direction and they can seem mawkish and self involved, wander too little into self discovery and the whole exercise can just seem like an excuse for a travelogue offering no character development.

Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) life has been less than ideal. In fact it has gone so badly that to rid herself of the self destructive behaviour and various catastrophes of her life, she has undertaken the task of re-inventing herself. To do this she embarks on a 1,100 km trek on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) to work through the death of her mother, her recent divorce, her sexual promiscuity and her drug use.

An adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical work (Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Coast Trail), this film manages to walk the line to produce a rather solid piece of drama with material that could easily be cloying. In part this is due to the excellent performance by Witherspoon, effortlessly nailing the determination of Strayed’s progression, while allowing us to feel the various frustrations and setbacks. She inhabits the character, often doing more with a look or a gesture than by screaming into the vast open sky (but she obviously does that, too). In part this is due to the script by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) being pitched at just about the right level, never sliding too far into sentimentality to be irredeemable.

However, primarily it is due to some restraint on the part of Jean-Marc Vallée, knowing when to let the scenery or the character speak. He peels back the story of Strayed’s past life by layers, just giving the audiences enough hints and visual teases as the journey progresses. This shift in focus between the past and present is well handled, never outstaying its welcome and leaving viewers hungry for more. Sharing much of its DNA with last year’s Tracks, this is somewhat surprisingly the slightly less theatrical take on the voyage of self discovery, which is curious when you consider the dream quest nature that Stayed’s journey often verges on (with apparitions of her dead mother and visitations by her spirit animal). Vallée’s slightly muted and faded palette gives context and realism to the PCT while not diminishing its beauty. The end result is something very much of the real world, plagued by a multitude of mundane issues (blisters, snakes, hunters, petty bureaucrats) even if the transformative effects are mystical.

Like Strayed herself, the film may stumble and fall in sections, it may get bogged down in areas and over think things, but it stays the course. The end result is uplifting, beautiful and on the whole, enjoyable. Wild may not be a life-changing journey, but it is a solid piece of cinema.