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Cheryl's Summer Journey In The Wild

Updated on April 4, 2015

Cheryl Strayed needed to make a break from things that had negatively impacted her life. She had recently divorced, and was the unfaithful one in the marriage. When the divorce became final, she didn't even revert to he former name; she chose her new surname from a dictionary. She then set upon a quest that took her miles away from all of her troubles in Wild. Set in 1995, ReeseWitherspoosn stars as Cheryl, who set on a border to border hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. As she walks over 1000 miles of trail from southern California to northern Washington, she has a great deal of alone time to reflect on the choices that brought her to that point. Her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), has begun his post-divorce life in Minneapolis, where they'd lived, but does support Cheryl on her quest. Over the course of a summer, Cheryl meets many kind strangers, encounters all sorts of weather, and sometimes wonders if her decision to hike was a mistake.

Cheryl also thinks a lot about her late mother, Bobbi Grey (Laura Dern), whom she'd always admired. Bobbi had extracted herself and her family from an abusive husband, and found a good place for them to live. While Cheryl was still in high school, Bobbi herself enrolled in order to get a diploma and a chance at bettering the family situation. Plans changed, though, when Bobbi received a terminal cancer diagnosis, which was followed by a rapid decline. After her mother died, Cheryl married Paul, went to college, and worked low-paying jobs. She also got involved with drugs, alcohol, and any man who was interested in her. Paul wanted to help, but eventually wearied of her destructive tendencies. While Cheryl finds herself far away from the site of her lowest moments, she sometimes encounters reminders of those days, as well as the dangers nature provides for hikers.

Wild, based on Strayed's book on her travels, shows a theme prevalent in the films of Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee. In Wild, as well as in The Young Victoria and Dallas Buyers Club, someone has to find and display strength, for the key characters in each film has some sort of perceived weakness that will overwhelm them. Clearly, Cheryl has weaknesses, as some of them cost her a marriage. She'd wanted to be the sort of caring mother and woman that she saw in Bobbi. The journey gave her the chance to start a new path, while still keeping in touch with Paul and her best friend in Minnesota, Aimee (Gaby Hoffman), both of whom supported Cheryl in the hopes she'd attain some sort of success. I didn't find Strayed as compelling a character as Queen Victoria or Ron Woodroof, I did care that she find some answers in her search for self and for reinvention. Vallee's engaging direction is complemented by a fine screenplay from High Fidelity author Nick Hornby.

Wild marks one of the best performances I've seen from Witherspoon. Cheryl recognizes her life has taken a path headed for self-destruction. She understands that at the end of her hike, she will have virtually no money. Finances, though, are not her biggest worry. She shows she's a novice hiker, and proves it with a very heavy backpack. She gets help, then later gets surprised when she learns an experienced hiker who's done the PCT before has quit his task. One of the best moments of the journey comes when Cheryl reaches Oregon, and she gets the gift of song from a little boy who's just learned to sing Red River Valley. All along the way, Cheryl thinks of Bobbi, and wonders if the much-missed mother would approve. Dern provides fine support as Bobbi, who never gave up on looking forward, even as illness took everything from her. Sadoski is also effective as Paul, the ex who, like Cheryl, wears a tattoo as a reminder of the day they divorced. Strayed and her daughter, also named Bobbi, have small parts in this film.

Wild sometimes uses familiar quotations to mirror Cheryl's feelings during her trip. The journey itself shows the adage that they journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For the first time in a long time, Cheryl Strayed saw a reason to make a lasting commitment to something. The Pacific Crest Trail may have obstacles for any hiker, but Cheryl has lived through much more difficult ones. In her past, Cheryl lost track of the values she deemed most important. During her hike, she simply wants to find a way to resolve to not stay lost.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Wild three stars. A new trail awaits.


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