There is a noticeable dearth of female travel narratives. For obvious reasons, we are frightened for women of the unknown world. Our only conclusion for them is that they are running away from something, reckless and alone, bound for possible rape and/or death. It’s a horribly reductive and limited rationalization of why women travel or search for the same liberation and adventure as men. It’s also, of course, not true, and creates a void for where there should be helpful information and solidarity. Thankfully, women and viewers alike can breath a sigh of relief as Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild opposes this structure. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s (an aptly chosen post-divorce surname) 2012 memories Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, the film is adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and stars Reese Witherspoon. Reeling from the unexpected death of her mother (Laura Dern), mourning the loss of a marriage, and sobering from a stint of heroin abuse, Cheryl impulsively decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. With no prior backpacking knowledge and a sordid past, to be sure, Hornby makes sure to note that this journey, while emotional, is not about running away. It’s not the reckless, damsel in distress narrative society has constructed. It’s about finding oneself, testing oneself, and accepting oneself.
With a slightly confusing chronology (it’s unclear when the heroin started, where the marriage ended, when the sobriety began, etc.,) shot between flashbacks and the trail, the film takes on an almost dreamlike quality. The action is mediated by a voiceover, which, while usually unnecessary, is practically unavoidable with the degree of Witherspoon’s solitude. Fortunately, the internal dialogue avoids the didacticism that would be par for the course with this kind of project, and rather becomes fragmentary, subdued (and not), contemplative outbursts.
It’s not “Eat, Pray, Love,” either, mind you. This journey is unglamorous: it’s tough and frightening, there’s continuous physical labor, and Cheryl is emotionally teetering off a cliff, screaming into the abyss at moments, and crying at a precocious child in others. She (and the audience) see every encountered male as a potential threat, although this only once proves to be founded. Significantly, it is not manifested in rape. Hornby, again, is quick to point out that while a solitary woman in the woods is, of course, vulnerable, he does not allow the background of potentially menacing men to subsume Cheryl’s narrative, as so often happens.
Wild is not without its small lapses. At times it feels like Hornby is utilizing a knowledge of the memoirs that we don’t have access to and he’s forgotten that. For example, the relationships between Cheryl and her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) or her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman), are underdeveloped, and feel like their scenes are more there to provide a variance from the trail than to supplement the story. But at the end of the film, it really doesn’t matter. With Yves Bélanger’s beautiful cinematography of the natural world, Witherspoon’s reclaiming of her talents, and Vallée’s simultaneously ruthless and sensitive direction, Wild is a triumph.
Wild opens today in Philly area theaters.