But thank God, nobody says that phrase in “Wild,” which is about a woman with actual problems. Based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir, the tone is set right away when Strayed, (played by Reese Witherspoon, in the kind of role any actress in Hollywood would fight to the death for, and she savors the experience like it's the ripest, most delicious peach in the world) shown in a very unflattering angle, in the middle of nowhere, literally picking off her breaking toenails, and is soon minus her hiking boots. We feel her frustration, as her first words are, “Fuck you, bitch!” Yep, it seems this journey will feature no hotel suites in suitably exotic locales.
The filmmakers mostly and wisely stick to the events and tone of Strayed's book, with few embellishments. It shouldn't be revolutionary to allow a woman to look natural onscreen, but oh well. It won't be too much for audiences to hand though, since Witherspoon reportedly stated that as a southerner she had to draw the line at not shaving her legs.
But none of Strayed's flaws prevent us from empathizing with her, as it becomes clear how much of an amateur she is from the beginning. The very beginning, like when she puts on her backpack for the first time, and finds she has to put it on sitting down and then struggle upwards. And it only gets harder from there. The trail is beautiful, but also challenging, and a single mistake could lead to severe injuries, or even fatal ones.
And thankfully, there are no Hollywood action scenes or added drama. All the intensity comes from the sheer power of Witherspoon's performance, along with the beauty of her surroundings. Strayed was at times painfully honest about herself and her journey, and the film is mostly the same. She is a woman traveling alone, and the film shows how strong that makes her, but also how vulnerable. The vast majority of the people she meets are kind, and only a very few have less than noble intentions.
But the film resembles Strayed herself in that it has a few things holding it back. I couldn't help but wonder if the kind of sex Witherspoon has in “Wild” would be that remarkable if she was a man, and if audiences only forgave her and accepted her rebirth at the end because the movie makes you feel every arduous step she takes on the trail. But kudos to the film for having Strayed redeem herself, not because a perfect man steps forward and makes her all better. And then there's her mother. Laura Dern is excellent, but the role's written in a way that almost makes her a cardboard saint. I wish “Wild” would have allowed her a few flaws too.
But mostly all the right notes are struck here. The people Strayed meets on the trail are affecting, yet still recognizable as people, and its mix of realism and redemption can't fail to strike a chord, even with the most jaded viewer. “How wild it was, to let it be,” Strayed thinks at the end. How wild indeed.