Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee has only made half a dozen films, but they demonstrate extraordinary range. Many directors specialize in one genre, but Vallee has plunged into wildly disparate arenas. He went from a coming-of-age story called C.R.A.Z.Y to a lush historical epic, The Young Victoria. Last year’s Oscar-winning film, Dallas Buyers Club, explored a little-known part of the history of the AIDS epidemic. Now in Wild, based on a best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Vallee has crafted a vivid wilderness adventure film that is also a powerful story of family anguish and survival. All of these films focus on very strong-willed individuals, but the completely different worlds they bring to life testify to an astute directorial hand.
Vallee’s latest offering is alternately harrowing and heartbreaking, but laced with saving bursts of humor. The popularity of Strayed’s book and the strong performance by Reese Witherspoon should ensure an audience for the movie and bring more accolades to the director, as well as to screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education), who adapts the book with finesse. The film has its world premiere in Telluride, and Fox Searchlight will open the picture later this fall, where it seems sure to figure in this year’s awards race.
Dallas Buyers Club earned Oscars for both its lead and supporting actors, and it’s conceivable that the new film could repeat the trick for two actresses. Witherspoon is actually a little old for the part of Strayed (which was a name she adopted after fleeing a troubled marriage), who was just 26 when she decided to hike the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to the mountains of Oregon. But Cheryl obviously had been through enough painful experiences by then to make her look older than her years. Witherspoon transforms herself both physically and emotionally into this hardened yet needy young woman seeking to re-invent herself after a series of personal tragedies. She chose this marathon hike almost on a whim, and she was completely unprepared for the challenges. As Strayed wrote in her book, “I hadn’t factored in my lack of fitness, nor the genuine rigors of the trail, until I was on it.” Witherspoon captures all the conflicting, dizzying emotions that the adventure stirs in her.
Witherspoon is matched by Laura Dern, who plays her mother, Bobbi, an inspiring life force who is stricken with a devastating medical diagnosis. We learn of the closeness of their bond only gradually. The film begins with Cheryl midway through her odyssey, undergoing some physical setbacks in the wilderness. Flashbacks take us back to the beginning of her journey and then much further back into her childhood and through her turbulent family and marital relationships. This fractured storytelling is getting to be overused in contemporary movies, but it happens to be faithful to the way that Strayed wrote her book, and Hornby and Vallee make the intricate transitions pointed and crystal-clear.
Inevitably a film like this is going to be episodic, but the adventures that Cheryl has on the trail are always startling, from her encounters with wildlife to the nightmare of a freak snowstorm. Yet the human encounters also enrich her journey, and here Hornby’s ability to bring minor characters to life and Vallee’s fine work with an extraordinary supporting cast make all of these episodes richly compelling. The director is helped by the exceptional cinematography of Yves Belanger, who takes us through varied landscapes from the scorching Mojave desert to the imposing mountains of northern California and Oregon.
The film remains equally compelling during the flashbacks. Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s supportive but skeptical friend and Thomas Sadoski as her conflicted husband make the most of their scenes, but it’s really Dern who tears at our emotions during her scenes with Witherspoon. Bobbi’s life journey, cut tragically short by illness, is as compelling as Cheryl’s. This is one of the most honest, complex portrayals of a mother-daughter relationship that we’ve seen in any recent movie, and the loss of her mother helps to explain Cheryl’s utter disorientation and her search for a major challenge to bring her back to life.
Witherspoon doesn’t shy away from showing the dark sides of Cheryl’s character — her surrender to sexual excesses and drug addiction. Her battle for survival began a long time before she hit the wilderness trail, so her journey illuminates a whole series of internal as well as external struggles. Witherspoon’s inherent appeal keeps us on Cheryl’s side even through her self-destructive exploits, but there’s nothing sentimental about the actress’s tart portrayal.
The film has unmistakable parallels to Sean Penn’s movie, Into the Wild, and if this story is ultimately more uplifting, we always feel that Cheryl Strayed is just a few beats away from catastrophe. The profound precariousness of all her life’s journeys is what makes her hard-won victory so stirring.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, Michael Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Nick Eversman, Mo McRae.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee.
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby.
Based on the book by: Cheryl Strayed.
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, Bill Pohlad, Reese Witherspoon.
Executive producers: Nick Hornby, Nathan Ross, Bergen Swanson.
Director of photography: Yves Belanger.
Production designer: John Paino.
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning.
Editor: Martin Pensa.
Rated R, 115 minutes.