A woman, the open road and a whole load of self reflection and blisters – a common enough trope for any trademark inspirational film, but in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, it’s not just the grit beneath the adventurer’s fingernails that is given an airing. A neat follow up to last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée once again proves his talent for bringing beauty to the darker stories of our society, now helped by a screenplay by Nick Hornby.
Adapted from the true story of Cheryl Strayed, the unlikely heroine is played by Reese Witherspoon who firmly reminds us of her Oscar winning credentials. Downtrodden but still enrapturing, Witherspoon is truly excellent, conveying the many stages of Strayed’s life that brought her from innocent student to junkie to hardened traveller.
The path of emotional existentialism on your own two feet is well worn on the big screen but in Wild, we are treated to a woman’s journey beyond a cliched Eat, Pray, Love moment of enlightenment. Strayed is wrecked – emotionally and physically – abusing herself and those around her to the point where her only option is to remove herself from her life as it was. With the death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage due to her own undoings, with anyone who would un-do her, still all too present she decides to break free and hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,000 mile trek from the Mexican border to Canada.
The panpipes of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ gently soar, signalling the start of her adventure. But first, Strayed must pick up her pack. As in, physically. Having purchased every hiking gadget and accessory one can imagine, fresh from the packet, and crammed into her monstrous backpack, it’s clear Strayed could not be less prepared. There’s of course no avoiding the baggage metaphor, not only will she have to learn to carry her baggage but she will also have to learn how to let some of it go along the way. And so, with her inner monologue whispering on the winds, we follow her journey along the beautifully shot scenery of the Pacific Crest Trail, or the PCT as the pros call it.
Beyond the stunning horizons, Wild succeeds in its own narrative journey, following Strayed’s descent through gritty flashbacks to her days of heroin and promiscuity and the devastation of her mother’s illness. Bravely tying together the uplifting messages of outward bound travel with the darkness of depression and addiction that can make a person pack up and pack out, ‘wild’ is the operative word. Strayed may not be able to be fully tamed but perhaps she can be guided, whether it be by the memory of her mother, affectionately played by Laura Dern, or her newly found spirit animal on the road. It’s a refreshing version of the woman on the road with a heartrending message for us all to ‘place ourselves in the way of beauty’, making it an active choice rather than waiting for the world’s beauty to come to us.
A sensitive yet earthy story of a woman and the 1,000 miles of healing hiking that get her back on track with an impassioned performance from Reese Witherspoon.
Wild is screening on Wednesday 15 October (Odeon West End) and Thursday 16 October (Vue Cinema Islington).
View the full festival programme online: www.bfi.org.uk/lff
Watch the trailer: