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Saturday, December 6, 2014

WILD Review

Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" in WILD.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
2014, 115 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language

Review by Joshua Handler

Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild is a film that actually inspired me.  So often, I see movies that are inspiring, but that don't cause me to think about my own life and to want to live better.  Wild is based on the autobiography of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who trekked over 1000 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail after a series of personal tragedies.  Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby don't include big hands-in-the-air "I-made-it" moments.  Instead, they give weight to moments of introspection and the quiet, internal victories that Strayed experiences throughout her trip.

There is so much that makes Wild more than just a typical biopic.  Hornby and Vallée use voice-over and Strayed's internal monologue to provide us a door into this woman's fractured soul.  Strayed is wracked with guilt, pain, anger, and regret and these emotions affect her throughout her journey.  Instead of giving us big scenes where Strayed shows us these emotions, Vallee frequently gives us brief glimpses into Strayed's emotions through sounds and flashes of memories.

Through the sounds, memories, voice-over, and internal monologue, I never felt as if I was simply observing Strayed.  I felt as if I was living this adventure with her.  I got to walk in her shoes.  Most biopics observe their main characters, but in Vallée's biopics, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, he allows us a portal into his character's heads so that we can travel with them.

Vallée and Hornby's work, however, would be all for naught without a lead performance to match it.  Reese Witherspoon's understated, conflicted performance in Wild anchors the film and guides us over its course.  Witherspoon's portrayal of Strayed is neither flattering nor sweet.  She gives a performance that leaves no stone unturned.  She shows Cheryl at both the peak and at rock bottom.  Under Vallée's careful direction, Witherspoon dials back any of her movie-star persona to create an ordinary flawed woman beaten down by the world.

When discussing movie stars' performances in films where they must shed their star persona, people tend to mistake the star's ragged looks for good acting.  What Witherspoon gives in Wild is an unglamorous performance, but also a truly great one that very few actresses could have achieved with such powerful effect.  Witherspoon's Strayed is troubled, but she is also funny, kind, and caring.  Witherspoon expertly balances all of these parts of Strayed to create one of the most vibrant and realistic female protagonists I've seen on screen this year.

It's inspiring to watch Wild because Vallée and Hornby have created a female heroine who stands up against large, yet very relatable, realistic odds to change herself and lead a better life.  The "inspirational biopics" we have been seeing now like Unbroken and The Theory of Everything are about people who are larger than life.  Strayed is not larger than life.  She's an insignificant everyday woman who, as a sign in her therapist's office points out, is a small part of a big universe.  But, it's seeing that someone like you or I could change so significantly that makes this story more inspirational than other films about more significant figures.

Overall, Wild is a piece of filmmaking that I genuinely believe can better those who view it and can make people think about how they're living their lives.  It rises above cliché time and again thanks to Vallée's sympathetic, understated direction and Nick Hornby's intelligent screenplay.  The performances are excellent across the board (Laura Dern gives a heartbreaking performance as Strayed's beloved mother), but it is Witherspoon who owns this film.  Never has she been given the opportunity to shine like this before.  I think that people's image of her will change dramatically after seeing her transformative work in Wild.  Witherspoon kept me with her throughout the film and made Cheryl's eventual redemption feel earned through her subtly changing performance.


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