film review: wild
Reese Witherspoon produces and stars in Wild, the story of a young woman whose life falls to pieces and her journey to put herself back together, based on the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed. The film opens with Cheryl alone in the American wilderness, clearly at the end of her tether. A series of flashbacks tells the audience how and why she decided to hike over a thousand miles up the Pacific Crest Trail—alone.
Wild details the events leading up to Cheryl’s own personal catastrophe. After her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) died well before her time, Cheryl found herself understandably grief stricken, seeking solace in degrading sex and eventually drug abuse. The person she became was light years away from the woman her mother raised. Desperate for a reset button, she embarks on a cross-country journey, alone and on foot. Wild examines how Cheryl got here—the events both outside her control and the consequences of how she chooses to deal with her problems—with refreshing, brutal honest. Mostly. We’ll get to that.
This film is impressive, both in its portrayal of the female experience of the world and the way in which it depicts imperfect, compelling characters. Along the trail Cheryl meets several people, most of them men. At the beginning of almost every interaction there is wariness on the part of Cheryl. She wants to believe in the kindness of strangers and in people’s goodness. But the cold hard truth remains, she is a woman alone in an unforgiving environment and is physically no match for the men she encounters. Witherspoon cleverly communicates this sense of fear, of being uncomfortable in these scenes; this fear is not something that is in the forefront of every woman’s mind during every interaction she has with a strange man, but it is always lurking in recesses of the brain.
The film was also peppered with scenes between Cheryl and her mother, a woman who fled with her two children from an abusive partner and eventually goes back to university whilst raising her son and daughter. One scene in particular provokes contemplation on the duality and conflicts of feminism. Leif (Keen McRae), Cheryl’s brother, comes home and asks his mother what’s for dinner. Bobbi, previously immersed in her study, immediately gets up and sets about cooking. Cheryl points that her mother has many hours of study ahead of her and that her adult son is more than cable of feeding himself. Bobbi responds that she wants to do it all, be the prefect mother and a model student. Bobbi smiles gently and Cheryl rolls her eyes in exasperation – both strong women, both feminists with opposing views on how to enact that feminism. A situation not unfamiliar to any young or old feminist.
Of course, this is a Hollywood film and while it can tell story with ugly themes the presentation of these themes must always be pretty. The sex in this film seen out of context would be difficult to identify as degrading and desperate, though the script tries to position it as such in other ways. One particular scene in a hotel with a random stranger looked very much like two people enjoying each other’s bodies and not much else. There was a scene in a dark alleyway that implied the sex she was having was for monetary gain but beyond that was not very unsettling. Mostly it was Reese with her lovely skin tone and perky boobs having slightly non-pedestrian sex. There are many other films which tackle sexual expression and exploration in ways that would make the team behind Wild blush; one doesn’t think light-hearted rom com when thinking of a film like 1999’s Romance for example, but Wild definitely has feel-good, uplifting intentions.
Nevertheless I though Wild was fantastic. Bring on the films about the ladies, it’s not just the disenchanted feminists who watch them. It’s a story that audiences will find relatable, even if they’ve never responded to their own life crises by going on a thousand mile hike. Everyone at some stage is going to have something horrible happen to them and a myriad of responses, good and bad, are possible.