Screened Out – Wild

By : Stephen Miller
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Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski

In the first scene of Wild – halfway through her 1100-mile hike – Cheryl Strayed pauses to peel off her hiking boots and pull her detached toenail from her big purple toe. Then, one of her boots slides down a cliff. In frustration, she throws the other shoe after it while releasing a primal scream.

Don’t let that make you think everything is hopeless. Strayed is portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, the plucky heroine of Election, the Legally Blonde films, and Walk the Line. So, we already know with rock-solid certainty that she will be fine.

That’s the single problem with Wild. Witherspoon bought the rights to Strayed’s biography and produced this flick, so she could star in it. It’s a serviceable, uplifting story, but it could have been much grittier and more harrowing, the payoff much greater. It’s worth seeing because of Witherspoon’s pluck and, specifically, Dern’s nominated performance as her mother.

In 1995 – while addicted to heroin – Cheryl Strayed cheated on her husband (Sadoski). Then she lost her lovely mother. This led to an emotional crisis. Strayed decided to cure her pain by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – a grueling trek through heat and snow, mostly alone.

Laura Dern is effulgent, absolutely worthy of her Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Laura Dern is effulgent here, absolutely worthy of her Best Supporting Actress nomination.

There are arguments for and against Witherspoon playing the lead role here. Her drunken run-in with a Georgia state trooper last year was a low point not nearly as desperate as Strayed’s string of bad choices. We all saw the embarrassing dashcam footage, but Witherspoon is still not comparable to Strayed’s having indiscriminate public sex while shooting up repeatedly. We always knew our Tracy Flick/Elle Woods/June Carter Cash would make a comeback. In Wild – like in Into the Wild, another film about a loner in the wilderness – we should worry whether Strayed survives.

Witherspoon’s natural moxie just makes it nigh impossible to see her as a cheating drug addict. She never totally disappears into the role. We can gross out at her battered toenail. We can definitely feel the heat and snow; the fear is palpable as she runs short of food and water and encounters possible rapists and murderers. Most of that is film technique. Where Witherspoon’s acting shines is as a daughter mourning the death of her firecracker mommy – Dern at her most radiant.

At this point, you may sense that I’m not entirely behind Witherspoon’s nomination. I like her a lot, and I think the good will she generates can go a long way in Hollywood. I don’t think it’ll bring home the gold – not for this flick, even with her dirty hair, dingy shirts, drug use, and nude scenes.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Still, the movie itself is also loaded with enough spirit to surmount any challenge. Brilliant scribe Nick Hornby (About a Boy) adapted Strayed’s biography, mining every moment of gentle humor and human kindness. Director Jean Marc-Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) finds arresting shots throughout the barren deserts and mountains. The pace and structure are both sound, if a bit common – with the flashbacks adding pathos and healing to Witherspoon’s solitary, arduous journey.

Sure, Wild will remind you of Into the Wild, 127 Hours, and even some of the more cloying parts of Eat Pray Love – the soul searching and self-reflection. All in all, none of this makes for a rough trip. With Witherspoon at the helm, we’re pretty sure where we’re going to be okay.

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