Wild: Not Feeling the Film or Reese Witherspoon

If you’re looking for another version of EatPray, Love, here you go. Wild is the film adaptation of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir about real-life Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon), who embarks on a 1,100-mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail while fighting addiction, coping with death, and going through a divorce alone. Movies like this are crack for white, middle-class suburbanites.

It’s clearly also crack for major film awards, as we’ve already seen Reese Witherspoon garner a Screen Actors Guild nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in Wild (and I’m sure an Oscar nod will follow). And with Laura Dern in a supporting role and screenwriter Nick Hornby (of About a Boy and An Education), it’s possible the film could snag Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and maybe Best Picture, too. But the real question is…does Wild deserve that kind of recognition?

While I think it’s a good-looking film—that is, the cinematic shots of the Pacific Crest Trail are gorgeous and kind of make me want to hike the damn thing, though I’ve never hiked in my life—it’s not a great movie. Sure, it has the appearance of an Oscar-worthy film. It’s got Witherspoon and Dern, it’s based on a true story of personal redemption, and the hiking scenes are interwoven with flashbacks of Strayed’s complicated life to really pack the punch that this walk is a giant reflection for Strayed. However, all of the sentiment and “moral of the story” juice gets lost in Witherspoon’s performance.

Strayed is supposed to be a good-girl-gone-bad type trying to escape the self-absorbed, heroin-addled adulterer she turned into after her mother’s death to become the sophisticated girl with potential her mother admired. But Witherspoon completely misses that mark. Her version of Strayed is more petulant and cocky than conflicted and repentant. Where she should have showed us the suffering behind the mask of a bold face, she came off as entirely aloof. And honestly, it makes it difficult to view this movie as a tale of overcoming character flaws and hard times because of it.

Also, the juxtaposition of Dern as Strayed’s mother, Bobby, makes Witherspoon seem even more unsympathetic in her role. Bobby was abused by her husband and had to live on nothing to escape him, yet she wanted her children to know love and positivity. Now, we could argue that it’s unfair to compare them since Dern played a person immortalized as a saint in Strayed’s memory. But Dern managed to take a character who’s supposed to be one-dimensional and added suffering behind every smile and conversation. This is the subtlety Witherspoon was unable to capture in her own performance.

Again, it’s not that this movie is particularly bad. It just feels like it’s trying so hard to bait those award nominations that it forgets to feel.

Overall, Wild lacks the necessary heart to sell a film about personal growth. While it looks beautiful from a writing and cinematography standpoint, Reese Witherspoon doesn’t play Cheryl Strayed (writer of the Wild memoir) as sympathetically as she should. I never felt like her character was truly suffering, let alone reflecting on her life with remorse—kind of a requirement for redemption stories. The fact that Witherspoon is being nominated for Best Actress left and right is disappointing, too, now that I’ve seen this movie. Because I bet other actresses put in serious, more deserving efforts beyond “Look how dirty I got playing Eat, Pray, Hike a Goddamn Trail.”

Wild: B

For my radio review of Wild on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 24:17 mark).

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