“Wild” has a potent opening set in the deserted wilderness. While dealing with a damaged toenail, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) has an accident with one of her hiking shoes. The film is based on Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical book about her attempt to change her life through a solitary hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, 1100 miles from Mexico to Oregon. This distinctive journey of discovery is enhanced by 2 award-caliber performances. The setting seemed appropriate for a film screened in the mountain setting at the Telluride Film Festival.
In an exceptional, unflinching performance devoid of perkiness, Reese Witherspoon shows the depth of Cheryl’s despair caused by the death of her mother, leading to promiscuous sex and drug addiction. She also convincingly conveys Cheryl’s persistence on the trail. She’s inexperienced, initially nearly collapsing under the weight of what she carries on her back into the “Wild”.
In flashbacks, Laura Dern is outstanding as Cheryl’s mother whose warm love and determination holds her family together throughout harsh circumstances. Dern creates such a vivid presence and is such a life force that it is understandable that her loss would create such a void in her daughter’s life that Cheryl would spiral out of control. Cheryl described her mother as “the love of my life”.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) does an impressive job of recreating Cheryl’s long hike, showing the natural beauty of the wilderness and the physical arduousness of the hike. Of dramatic importance, the film includes the variety of experiences, as well as the different travelers Cheryl encounters.
Vallee skillfully intercuts Cheryl’s journey with intense scenes of her past that led to her decision to take the Pacific Coast Trail. Scenes with Dern are particularly moving. At an outdoor panel at Telluride, Vallee said that in the cutting room, he used flashbacks to include scenes “full of emotion” throughout the film, as a balance to the scenes Cheryl alone. This diversity keeps “Wild” absorbing throughout, unlike many “solitary trek” films such as the recent “Tracks”.