Cheryl Strayed isn’t prepared. Shortly into day 1 of her 3 month long expedition she is already thinking, “What have I done?” Her backpack is ridiculously overstuffed. Her hiking boots are too small. She brought the wrong fuel for her cooking stove. She’s hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which runs through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges from the Mexican border up to Canada. Her destination is Ashland, Oregon. Why she has committed to this trek isn’t clear at first, but we assume early on that she isn’t happy with her life.
The film adaptation is based on Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed and published in 2012. There will be inevitable comparisons to Into the Wild, the tale of Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s good reason. Both are true stories taken from best selling novels. Each concerns people of a similar age. Both are about tough redemptive journeys in natural surroundings. The difference is Cheryl Strayed is a more sympathetic character than Christopher McCandless.
You cannot discuss Wild without citing lead actress Reese Witherspoon. She is the focus of every scene. Cheryl Strayed remains a plucky heroine throughout. She predictably rises above adversity, and confounds all expectations. While I think Reese Witherspoon does an admirable job, the depiction of Strayed in her present incarnation doesn’t seem much different from Reese Witherspoon the actress. Granted the life experiences that have compelled Cheryl Stand to make this journey are not the same. And if I may make a candid aside: promiscuous sex and drugs are still clichés. The fact that they actually happened doesn‘t change this. At any rate, the performance essentially feels like I am watching Reese Witherspoon the actress go on a backpacking trip. This doesn’t negate the power of the story, but it makes the transformation seem like less of a stretch. I think we’re beyond the point where the courage to wear no make-up is seen as transmogrifying.
The events wisely unfold in a manner that draw us in. The drama is told in two parts: the present and the past. Recurring flashbacks are a mainstay of the narrative. In days gone by, we meet her mom, her brother, her father, her husband. These relationships shed light on her life and what has inspired this epic journey. In the modern day, we meet various people along the way of her hike. Screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director Jean-Marc Vallée do an effective job at dramatizing the autobiographical account of a woman backpacking a portion of the PCT alone at age 26. Every time she meets someone, we experience the tension she felt, even in situations that ultimately become a positive experience. The dangers, particularly for a woman, in endeavoring this isolated walk through the wilderness is illustrated well. The everyday interactions in her present adventure are often straightforward, but they remain compelling. The overall chronicle is woven together to keenly recount the saga of an individual.