I have always been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, ever since I saw her debut performance as a teenager in The Man in the Moon (1991)—one of my favorite movies. Her rise to stardom which included the films Freeway and Fear (1996), Pleasantville (1998), Cruel Intentions (1999), Election (1999), and her true star-making performance in Legally Blonde (2001) really warranted her as America’s Sweetheart, but it wasn’t until her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line (2005) which proved she was, and still is, one of the greatest actresses of her generation. And then came a string of sloppy flicks, including Just Like Heaven (2005), Four Christmases (2008), How Do You Know (2010), and This Means War (2012). Hold on a minute—Witherspoon stepped back into true stardom in 2014, when she optioned the rights to the best-selling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, which recounts the story of how a woman leaves her life behind—which consisted of sex addiction and drug abuse after the loss of her mother—and decides to trek the 1,100 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail in desperate need of some soul-searching. The outcome? An extraordinary and touching memoir by Strayed, but a superb performance by Witherspoon in the film, which is simply entitled Wild.
Knowing that the memoir would become a film starring Witherspoon, I decided to buy it. From the very beginning, I was inspired by Strayed’s decision to reinvent herself and find a new life. Had I not checked HIFF’s website for any last-minute updates, I would never have realized the festival would be screening it. Boy, was I glad they did. I called and luckily, they still had ten tickets available. Sitting in the theatre and watching the memoir’s adaptation was a true delight. The film opens with Witherspoon’s character halfway through her journey, taking off her one-size too small boots and socks, and tearing off a loose-hanging toenail, followed by an enraged “Fuck you, bitch!” and throwing both boots into the desert helplessly, setting the tone for the film’s raw nature. In the scene immediate after, the real Strayed makes a cameo as Witherspoon’s character’s friend, dropping her off at the beginning of the trail with an optimistic “good luck.” Along the way, Witherspoon’s character immediately begins to regret her expedition, but it isn’t until she meets fellow hikers which ultimately gives the protagonist the motivation to continue and succeed. Further, the film takes us through flashbacks, recounting her close relationship with her mother, Bobbi (played tenderly by an exquisite Laura Dern), and her illness and eventual death which led to Strayed’s reckless behavior and lifestyle soon after, which included heroin abuse and multiple sexual partners and a divorce from her loving husband. Though these instances may appear as the driving forces behind Strayed’s decision to trek the PCT, it’s the continued presence of Dern’s character which sustains Witherspoon’s Strayed to succeed.
This past summer, I was vacationing in Old Québec City, and I remember I was killing time for my 6 am flight and was hotel-less until then. I sat on a bench, with 60 pages left in the novel, and finished it in 90-minutes time. I remember distinctly what an emotional rollercoaster I was experiencing, and it wasn’t until the last few pages which really left a profound impact upon me. After having gone on this journey with this reckless woman, she concludes her tale with a heartfelt soliloquy, detailing her life post-PCT and how the expedition made a true impact on her life. I knew that this must be in the film, which, to my delight, it was. The final shots of the film involve Witherspoon’s character stepping foot on the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, looking behind and then above, absorbing in the feelings of her accomplishment, and shutting her eyes in peace, all the while a voiceover with the near-exact soliloquy found in the memoir is conveyed.
As I was watching the film, scenes from the memoir recounted in my head and I concluded it was ultimately a faithful adaptation. Loving the memoir so much caused me to feel a bit under-satisfied with the adaptation, though had I not read the memoir, the film as a standalone is incredible. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who follows up his award-winning Dallas Buyers Club (2013) with Wild has found his niche. His ability to find the hearts and souls of his characters and their stories are what lead him to creating such compelling films. However, it is the superb performance of Witherspoon which creates an outstanding film. Some might say this is her best performance to date (though I’d argue Walk the Line remains so), considering her authentic, de-glamorized portrayal. It is a brave role for Witherspoon, and for any actress, really, considering it entails nudity, brief yet graphic sex scenes, and constant heroine injections. I expect to see Witherspoon’s name in the 2015 Academy Awards’ lineup for Best Actress, as well as Dern in the Supporting Actress category.
Wild is not your typical self-discovery tale, and although it focuses on one woman for practically the entire film, it avoids the selfish atmosphere that Eat, Pray, Love often fell into. Wild is a treat for any Witherspoon fan, and simply a treat for anyone who enjoys an outstanding cinematic experience.