About five or six years ago I watched a movie that had been recommended to me almost on a whim simply because it was on Netflix Streaming (way back when Netflix Streaming was still relatively new).  That movie was called C.R.A.Z.Y., which is a movie with a really stupid title but which ended up being pretty damn good.  It was a sort of family saga and coming of age story about a gay teenager growing up in Quebec during the 70s.  That probably doesn’t sound wildly enticing, but the film really works and even manages to find a good explanation for its wacky title.  I tried to keep an eye on that film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, but his follow-ups seemed really un-noteworthy.  He made one film called The Young Victoria which just seemed like Masterpiece Theater nonsense and he made something else called Café de Flore, and I’m not even sure what that is.  Then last year he reemerged after he directed a little movie called Dallas Buyers Club which somehow managed to become a multi-Academy Award nominee in spite of some very corny elements.  I didn’t hate that movie but it certainly seemed pretty far removed from the potential I saw out of Vallée previously.  I guess at the end of the day Vallée never really was the auteur I thought he was, but he does seem to be a fairly skilled journeyman and he seems to have made something of an artistic comeback with his latest film: Wild.

Wild is based on a memoir called “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by a the essayist and advice column author Cheryl Strayed.  The film is framed around a literal journey that Strayed (played here by Reese Witherspoon) took to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a wilderness trail that crosses the entire West Coast from the Mexico border to the Canadian border.  It’s a hike that is apparently attempted by about three hundred people each year and completed by a little over half of them, so it’s not an entirely crazy goal and there is are a series of waypoints in place to support these hikers, but it’s still a pretty arduous trip that requires a lot of time and dedication.  Strayed started on this journey after a handful of tough years following the death of her mother, years in which she started using heroin, engaging in compulsive sex, and eventually ended up divorcing her husband (who was put off by the aforementioned behavior).  The film intercuts her wilderness adventure with flashbacks to the difficult years that preceded it in order to frame this hike as a sort of cathartic adventure Strayed needed in order to escape her self-destructive behavior and put per life back on track.

The obvious reference point to go to when looking at this film is the 2007 Sean Penn directed film Into the Wild, which looked at another young person’s real life journey into wilderness adventuring.  Both movies can be similarly episodic, both feature a lot of North American scenery, and both movie have the word “wild” in their titles, but there are definite differences as well.  Strayed is a little older than that film’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless, and her trip is generally more planned out and a bit less unconventional.  Of course the biggest difference McCandless did not live to tell his story while Strayed did.  As such, McCandless has a certain mystique that Strayed doesn’t and the film that was made about him viewed him as something of a puzzle to be pieced together.  Strayed, by contrast is pretty actively aware of her motivations and comes from the borderline narcissistic tradition of the personal essayist.  In fact Strayed’s basic motivations and character arc so apparent so quickly that making an entire film about them almost feels redundant at times, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a journey worth going on especially when it’s brought to the screen as strongly as it is here.

Anchoring the film is Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed.  If I have any complaint with Witherspoon’s performance it’s that I think a certain degree of vanity may be on display in the way that the character never quite seems to be disheveled as she maybe should have.  Characters often mention that Strayed looks dirty and exhausted, but I don’t know that I ever quite saw that in Witherspoon’s performance, at least not to the extent I think I should have.  Witherspoon’s hair always looks shampooed, her complexion never quite looks filthy, and in general she just doesn’t seem able to completely leave her movie-star good looks behind and really transform into someone else.  That said, from scene to scene she’s quite good in the film.  She’s pretty good at displaying the character’s occasional peril and hardships without going over the top and exaggerating things.  The movie in general is pretty good at making Strayed’s trip seem like a pretty enticing adventure without losing sight of the fact that its protagonist was rarely ever in any truly life threatening danger on the trip.

Ultimately I don’t think Wild is a particularly deep or important movie, but then few movies really are.  It’s an adventure story of sorts, albeit a more realistic one, and it mostly works both as a character study and as a travelogue.  It also sort of quietly works as a feminist critique of society given the amount of time on this journey that Strayed seems to be living in fear of sexual assault (even though each of these encounters turns out to be a false alarm), which is a good reminder of how the two genders move through the world differently.  The movie is a pretty good watch all told and in its own way I found it entertaining and interesting even though I don’t really think it’s great.  It also sort of seems to put Jean-Marc Vallée’s career back on track even as it more or less convinces me that he’s never going to be an overly distinctive talent so much as a capable craftsman.  This is not a movie that should be watched with the heavy expectations that its status as an awards season prestige picture puts on it, but as a sort of summer movie for adults (which happens to be coming out in December) I think it delivers.

***1/2 out of Four

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