Natural and Personal Splendor
Everyone has their lowest moment. Points in our history where we’ve lied, stole or cheated. Made a mess of things. Regardless of magnitude, we all carry a little bit of shame. We also deal with them in a thousand different ways. The latest film from Oscar nominated director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) examines the true story of one woman’s quest to atone via trek through the California wilderness. With deft direction and an award worthy turn by Reese Witherspoon, Wild is a sure fire Best Picture contender.
Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) has had a rough life. Saddled with a past of prostitution and drug use, she decides to trek California’s thousand mile long Pacific Coast Trail without any hiking or wilderness experience. What starts as a way to get away from it all turns into a journey of self discovery, perseverance and healing.
With stunning shots of the California wilderness and intimate scenes of personal growth, Vallee takes Dallas Buyer’s Club’s comparatively stale direction and amps it up by a factor of three. His biggest success is the development of Cheryl as a character. By exposing bits of her back story in the midst of her incredible journey, Vallee paints her as a wounded warrior, not a back-stabbing cheat. She’s easy to stand behind despite her life mistakes.
As the star of the show, Witherspoon absolutely nails the energy of our trail worn hero. Tough yet vulnerable, Witherspoon plays the complex role with an unexpected confidence. Whether she’s fording a river in sandals or trying to sleep in the midst of forest noise, she perfectly straddles the line between physical and personal struggle. We feel for her past but never see her as a victim. A very tough balance pulled off with unseen skill.
My favorite performance, however, comes from the exceptional Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother. With her boundless enthusiasm in the midst of tough circumstances, Dern steals every scene she’s in. My favorite moment is when she explains her positive outlook to her teenage daughter. While her face shows the strain of an alcoholic husband and tight expenses, her heart remains golden. It’s one of my favorite moments of 2014. If she’s not on a Best Supporting Actress ballot come February, I just may stage a riot.
The entire emotional vibe is presented through a fantastic screenplay written by Nick Hornby (An Education). Adding a mix of sharp dialogue and natural humor to the drama, Hornby highlights the theme of personal repentance without beating us over the head with it. Nature is also used as a character, making Cheryl’s mostly solo journey feel like it’s being taken with an unreliable friend.
All of this is done without a hint of Lifetime movie cheese. Where Dallas Buyer’s Club finished on the preachy and predictable side, Wild keeps things honest and bare. Every happy ending or revelation is earned by our lead.
Stories about personal demons are common in the film making world. By using the power of nature as a metaphor for cleaning out the emotional closet, Vallee has created a film of strength and beauty. The true story of Cheryl’s road to recovery is a startling one done justice by bold direction, deft writing and a fantastic turn by an unappreciated actress. A completely satisfying trek through personal forgiveness.
Score: 9 out of 10