Sooner or later, in each of our lives, we have to face up to the realization that we’ve made mistakes. That’s the thing with living in a broken world — you’re never short of opportunities to mess up. Sometimes, as humans, we make bad choices. Sometimes we hurt people, sometimes people hurt us, and sometimes we hurt ourselves the most. How we realize the consequences of our actions, and how we choose to move on, is something that defines each of us.
How someone chooses to present that journey on screen — as with Wild, an adaptation of the 2012 memoir by Cheryl Strayed — can also be tricky. The film, about Strayed’s journey of redemption while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after a devastating personal spiral following the death of her mother, is made up largely of memories and internal dialogue. It’s a depiction of a complicated woman exploring difficult and multi-layered emotions. When your main character is exploring those emotions in a state of near-constant solitude, it means the filmmakers have to help audiences understand the protagonist while simultaneously giving them very few opportunities to explain themselves, or how they got to where they are.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) attempt valiantly to solve this problem, and achieve some moments of real beauty in the process. However, they never quite find a way to effectively connect Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in her lowest moments, which include heroin addiction, the termination of a pregnancy, and divorce, with the woman we’re watching hike from Mexico to Canada — a woman who, while troubled, seems to have it considerably more together.
It also doesn’t help that the conversations Strayed does have on the trail tend towards the kind of dialogue that feels less like natural conversation and more like a talk between archetypes spouting bumper-sticker wisdom. The conversations that come up, about choices, regrets, and mistakes made, are all valuable. But the way they happen feels sanitized.
Ultimately, Wild does manage to present some solid thoughts on the process of grief and redemption. Strayed’s observation that everything in her life, both good and bad, led her to becoming a stronger, better person is important. Just as important is the film’s point that our relationships with others are vital to our survival and growth.
There’s no doubt that Strayed’s own experience was powerful and tough. But in its translation to film, particularly a film with a plot and performance tailor-made for awards season, Wild is a movie that’s afraid to upset people. It acknowledges the hard stuff, but barely hints at the true emotional complexities of its story and of its main character. Where it ought to challenge, it merely suggests. And while that’s okay, it’s disappointing that it isn’t more.
Wild is currently playing in limited theatrical release. WATCH the trailer here.
Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.