From a distance, Wild looks like it belongs to the Eat Pray Love school of movies adapted from stunt memoirs. You know, the ones in which an author embarks on a challenging new adventure, ostensibly to shake up their rote existence, but also in order to have something to write a book about. How spending a year traveling the world taught someone about happiness and a sense of self. How cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking taught someone about... happiness and a sense of self. They're popular, they go down easy with their messages of personal growth by way of a new hobby, and there are surely more adaptations to come — A. J. Jacobs, king of the genre, has actually had multiple works optioned for film and television.
The memoir on which Wild — directed by Dallas Buyers Club's Jean-Marc Vallée from a screenplay by Nick Hornby — is based definitely fits this basic formula. It's about the 1,100-mile solo voyage up the Pacific Crest Trail that Cheryl Strayed, with no experience hiking, took in the wake of her divorce, four grief-filled years after the death of her mother. Strayed certainly went on a journey of self-discovery in addition to the one that takes her along the PCT, and earned Oprah's blessing and a spot atop the New York Times best-seller list for it.
But Wild isn't a cuddly story of finding neat fulfillment, on the page or in film — its lessons, as much as they exist, are harder won and not the kind you'd put on a poster. It's a trip worth taking, not the least because you get to spend it in the character of Cheryl, played on screen by Reese Witherspoon in an unshowy but soulful turn, who is one of the year's most satisfyingly realized female characters.
2014 has given us some great women on screen — take the pair played by Marion Cotillard in the tremendous twofer of the underseen The Immigrant and the upcoming Two Days, One Night, or Emily Blunt's steely turn as Rita in Edge of Tomorrow. But the year also continued to trot out the "strong female character" whose badassness is all surface, and who has little internal life or narrative purpose outside of the male protagonist — see the otherwise delightful The Lego Movie, or Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past, or even Gone Girl, which flattens its female lead from broken but believable into a psychopath. Cheryl is strong, actually strong, in that she's trying to carve a better human being out of the person she's become. Her inner life isn't just vibrant, it in many ways is the movie, and she blazes her own story out of the wilderness, one that includes love, destruction, sex, regret, and mourning, but that isn't defined by any of them.
At 26, broke and having hit bottom, Cheryl has spent the few years in a blur of casual sex and dabblings with heroin, leading to the end of her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski). "I'm the girl who says 'yes' instead of 'no,'" she declares, but by the time she spies a PCT guidebook in a store, that freedom has spiraled into something else. "I don't know when I became such a piece of shit," she confesses to her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann) in one of the many flashbacks peppering the film, after discovering she's pregnant and isn't sure who the father is. The hike's supposed to be an ordeal, a crucible through which Cheryl will, as she puts it, "walk myself into the woman I told my mother I would be."
Cheryl wears her toughness on her skin, in the bruises and abrasions she acquires along the trail and in the matching tattoos she and Paul get to commemorate their divorce, but it also comes through in the determined self-sufficiency and self-contemplation into which she's forcing herself. She encounters people along the way, both helpful and scary, but it's her journey, and she's on screen alone for much of the time, trudging under the weight of a huge backpack against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery.
There's an invigorating lack of narcissism to all this introspection — Cheryl is not waiting for the world to provide her with closure. In the end, she only has herself to count on, and she's willing to do the work. She's a person for whom leaping into the unknown has been easier than taking time to think about what she doing and who she is, and when her past seeps into the present, it does so in scenes that can be so jagged and raw that we understand why.
There are men in Cheryl's life, like Paul, like the lover who introduces her to smack, and like the scruffy dreamboat (Michiel Huisman) she encounters in Oregon and takes to bed. But her main companion along the way is her memory of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), a free spirit who married an abusive man, who raised Cheryl and her brother alone, who ventured back into school as an adult, and who died of cancer at 46. "I'm just so much more sophisticated than you were at my age," Cheryl tells Bobbi in a flashback, with all the effortless shittiness of a college student convinced she knows everything. In the present, Cheryl relives everything, acutely aware that she's been squandering opportunities her mother never had.
Wild slips in and out of Cheryl's past and present, but its point of view is always firmly female, showing what it's like to be a woman by yourself on the road. A stranger encountered on the way is probably a friendly face, but always merits wariness too, sometimes justified. Cheryl tends to get some extra help as one of the few women on the trail, but also has to put up with unwanted overtures. A scene in which she encounters a flirty ranger speaks volumes without shouting, and when she at one point says she's a feminist, it's a welcome declaration, but one that's already been made clear in word and action long before.
Wild is a very pretty movie, with a very good performance from Witherspoon, but it's the very idea of Cheryl — ferocious and flawed, navigating too-tight boots and record snows, a lonesome dot on the horizon — that resonates. Cheryl, who sums up why you can't always go out looking for answers to your problems — that sometimes you just have to walk them off.