Kicking the Tweets
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Wild (2014)

The 2,200,000-step Program

Jean-Marc Vallée may be the new face of Oscar bait, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. With last year's Dallas Buyer's Club and the just-released Wild, the director is at the forefront of a movement (collectively conscious or not) to make awards season interesting to those who've given up on traditionally stodgy, predictable, year-end films.

Yes, Wild ticks off many boxes on the Gimme Statues checklist:

  • Based on a True Story
  • Period piece
  • Meaty lead-actress role
  • Plot-light, meandering two-hour run-time
  • Social commentary masquerading as a classic Triumph of the Human Spirit story

Most casual moviegoers I know see these as reasons to avoid the multiplex between November and December. But Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby bring Cheryl Strayed's autobiography to life through a series of disorienting, disconnected flashbacks that only complete the film's narrative picture toward the very end. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), you see, is a heroin addict who's undertaken an 1,100-mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail as a means of flushing junk, guilt, and regret from her system. Memories come and go as narrative whispers, aided by flashbacks to a failed marriage and a dead mother (the tragically radiant Laura Dern), and in un-Hollywood fashion, the filmmakers leave it to us to straighten out the events that set Strayed on her treacherous journey.

Unlike 127 Hours or Into the Wild, the anguish in Wild is a springboard and not a destination. Nothing "bad" happens to Strayed on her quest, though we are constantly aware (as is she) of the unique dangers that await a relatively inexperienced young woman hiking on her own. Vallée and Hornby don't slide into melodramatic confrontations, deciding rather to focus on Strayed's many positive encounters. Set in the summer of 1995, Wild has the benefit of looking like a contemporary film, but the lack of cell phones and irony in the California neo-counterculture movement was a bit shocking--and refreshing. Strayed develops an unofficial network of fellow travelers at checkpoints and camp sites. She never stays attached for too long, keeping her eyes firmly affixed on the trail.

This is not to say that Wild is a feel-good movie, through and through. Much of it is an unflinching look at entitlement, unmet expectations, and the slippery slope of chemically aided misery. Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger plant us firmly on the trail with Witherspoon, who's believable as a person so thoroughly at the end of her physical and spiritual rope that the only thing more depressing than giving up is going on. We feel every pound of Strayed's backpack (nicknamed "The Monster"); we despair at the snake-, snow-, and shrub-marked vistas that she finds herself in the middle of. Memories, visions, and dreams keep her from getting bored, but they also remind her of what awaits if she dares turn back.

Wild isn't a movie you watch, it's a movie you live in and live with. Even those of us who didn't grow up as exquisitely damaged as Cheryl Strayed likely harbor romantic notions of packing up and seeing what we--and the world--are really made of. We live in a unique time, one marked by technologies that were ostensibly designed to bring us closer together. Yet many of us find ourselves more disconnected from each other, from the wider world around us, and even, to a degree, from ourselves.

Why bother reaching into our third grade memory banks to figure out the lunch tip percentage? We have apps for that. Overwhelmed by work, family, rent, and ever-fading dreams? Try leveling-up on Candy Crush for a momentary sense of accomplishment (those other problems can wait). Vallée, Hornby, and especially Witherspoon (in one of the year's most effective but un-showy performances) challenge us to confront our demons head-on by taking the bare minimum into the wilderness and fighting to become our best selves--perhaps with a detour to see this extraordinary film before hitting the road.

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