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Wild (2014)

January 19, 2015

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It’s not easy being a female wanderer or adventurer. Women who enjoy throwing caution to the wind to explore the world alone on their own terms don’t have the same privilege as Sal Paradise. The path to stuffing a backpack with necessities to stick out our thumbs in search of self-realization and adventure is much different for a woman than it is for a man. Women get pushed back by the threat of rape and murder as well as the natural threats that already exist. This dissociation from solo travel has reflected itself in films and stories throughout the years. Women are often seen in travel films accompanied by a man or bait for a murderous fiend. But, Wild steps into new terrain bringing the familiar tale of bold travel for personal growth through the eyes of a woman.

Based on the autobiographical memoir of Cheryl Strayed, Wild follows Cheryl’s quest for personal development after the death of her mother has a shattering effect on her life. Cheryl battles a bout with heroin addiction and a failed marriage brought on from her own infidelities. In the mist of her deteriorating life, she challenges herself to become the woman her mother thought her to be through a three month hike spanning over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. During her hike, Cheryl must find her inner strength by breaking herself down in order to rebuild herself back up. Alone in her thoughts her hike is riddled with doubt and uncertainty as she face challenges thrown at her by nature, her own incompetence and self-loathing from personal demons. Cheryl’s hike to find forgiveness makes Wild a truly intriguing coming of age story.

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Reese Witherspoon gives perhaps one of her best performances as Cheryl Strayed. Witherspoon shows off a broad range of emotions that she can portray effectively. Witherspoon teeters the line of sorrow and pain using her tears to showcase a woman who is so beaten by the death of her mother (Laura Dern) that she comes to despise her own well-being. Witherspoon does a phenomenal job expressing the voluntary self-sabotage that Cheryl goes through as well as the self-doubt and physical fatigue she battles on her hike.

There is a growth that develops in Cheryl’s character that is only made stronger by the obvious growth and devotion of Witherspoon. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we watch Cheryl prepare her backpack for the hike. An inexperienced hiker, she packs seemingly everything imaginable, signifying the psychological weight of her issues, and struggles in her hotel room to put on the bag and stand. We watch patiently as she grunts and strains her legs buckling under the weight. This scenes rings more powerful as future scenes continue to show the evolution of her ability to carry her own weight and let go of what’s holding her.

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Director Jean-Marc Vallee accompanies Witherspoon’s raw emotional gravitas with delicate filming techniques contrasted against cinematography ripe with harsh fluorescent lights. Wild plays out through series of flashbacks that revisits Cheryl throughout monumental times of her life. This technique makes for shocking revelations about Cheryl’s past mistakes, making her struggle for redemption all the more powerful. Cheryl, along with audiences, must confront how her impulsive behavior and strong attitude not only affects her in the present, but how they affected her past and her strained relationship with her mother.

While I personally enjoyed Wild, it definitely leaves much to be desired as a cinematic experience. The jumping edits don’t particularly do Cheryl’s ascension from her downfall justice. Much her struggles are fragmented in bits and pieces giving a disjointed not fully developed look at who Cheryl really is and how she came to be the woman on the trail we meet. Wild could have been more effective had it showed Cheryl dealing with more practical real-life issues in the wild, like dealing with a menstrual cycle. As a whole, the film feels as though it tries too hard to pull on the heartstrings of viewers by inserting poor CGI effects for an unneeded spirit animal and utilizing an inconsistent soundtrack.

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But despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed Wild due to the projections of my own life that I instilled in it. Wild acted as a pit stop on the trail of independence sought by a good friend and me for the New Year. For months we had planned on going camping together. A general sense of growing pains stemming from work, relationships and ultimately just hitting that fork in the road between two checkpoint in life drove us to seek our independence by relaxing in the glory of Gaia as a means to figure it all out, or at least take a break from it all.

As two women that works out our issues in the depths of the woods, we were ravished by Cheryl’s travels and completely revitalized once the credits rolled. The very next week we picked our campsite and spent a weekend in the Okefenokee Swamp. While we didn’t rough it the way Cheryl did, we were inspired to try new tasks, like canoeing among alligator infested waters due to the empowerment we felt from Wild. My wish is for this film to usher in more galvanizing films for women that encourages us to go out and explore and for men to aid in that independence. Wild is not the best in the works of road/travel narratives, but it’s a more than fair attempt and stepping stone for these types of films through the eyes of a female. As a woman with dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail, I am grateful for Wild.

SEE IT. If you are struck with wanderlust then this is one of the many travel films you should watch before exploring.

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