Crippled by grief, addiction and empty sex, desolate twentysomething Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) decides to hike the arduous, thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail, with zero preparation for the emotional and physical hardships ahead.
Films about finding yourself should often get lost. On paper the prospect of Reese Witherspoon producing and starring in a misery memoir about recovering from grief and divorce sounds like so much Eat Pray Vomit. But as much as she now seems like Hollywood royalty, Witherspoon is from Tennessee and this is a film that hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to struggle.
Adapting from Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book, screenwriter Nick Hornby resists platitudes, or a trite three-act redemption. Given that, Wild may lack the easy emotional uplift other filmmakers could have brought to it but at least – unlike the lead, after some encounters – you won’t hate yourself in the morning. Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée seems comfortable with a European pace, in a film of episodes. Strayed encounters travellers both threatening and encouraging on the trail, while elliptical editing takes us back to what caused her tailspin in the first place. That mystery isn’t quite, well, mysterious enough to serve as a powerful enough narrative engine, but that doesn’t ultimately matter, given Wild is so relentlessly honest and Witherspoon’s performance so raw. Shooting up, shagging about, screaming in the wilderness, she is isn’t afraid to go anywhere and everywhere. It is a performance without shame in a film that partly deals with getting over that evil, paralysing emotion.
People with experience of heroin addiction may question whether it is conscientious to have the habit kicked with such relative ease. But, then, Wild is responsible only to its own truth with minimal manipulation. Given the general predilection for biopics and memoirs to make triumphs out of tragedy or gloss over emotional trauma, the frankness is refreshing. Wild walks to its own beat. You can fall in, you can fall out, it doesn’t matter. This is, after all, a film about learning you can walk alone.
A quietly moving coming of age story that resists formula or easy redemption, driven by a strong, unvarnished performance from Witherspoon, who deserves huge credit as both star and producer.