‘Wild’ review: A woman’s journey to face her demons one painful step at a time

Published 9:33 am Saturday, December 13, 2014

“Wild,” adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of the same name, is a gut-wrenching story about a young woman’s quest to rediscover herself after the death of her mother (played by Laura Dern). Strayed (played in the film by Reese Witherspoon) sells most of her belongings and sets off to hike the Pacific Coast Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. Hardships along the 1,100-mile trek demonstrate Strayed’s courage and strength and lead to personal and spiritual growth.

Just as in the book, the film pulls no punches. It follows Strayed through literal highs (at one point in her life, she used heroin) and lows. Witherspoon, in a role that seriously breaks from type, is absolutely fearless and at times unrecognizable. Of course, people are going to squawk about her age. Strayed was 26 when she started the hike, and Laura Dern is only nine years older than Witherspoon. But Witherspoon gives such a remarkable performance, that criticism is easily forgotten. Dern was also at her best, portraying a loving, yet damaged woman both from bad boyfriends and cancer. Dern’s presence exudes warmth and light, and is a lighthouse for Witherspoon’s Strayed during the dark moments of her life. Both women give Oscar-caliber performances, and hopefully their work will be recognized with numerous nominations during the upcoming Award season.

“Wild” is one of my favorite books to come out over the last few years. While I cannot personally relate to many of Strayed’s problems, I was completely amazed by her bravery to face her demons one painful step at a time. It’s not every day you hear a true story about a young woman giving up everything to find herself. Not only that, I cannot believe she did all of this alone! I can barely find my way to Target without my iPhone, so I can’t imagine traveling hundreds of miles with a map, compass, and extremely heavy backpack.

Sidenote true story: I was reading “Wild” while sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room. As anyone who has read the book knows, it is at times extremely emotional, especially with the mother/daughter storyline. While reading, I started to cry. Because I was crying in a doctor’s office, a nice patient came over to comfort me, thinking I had just been given a terrible diagnosis. When I figured out what was happening, I quickly told her I was crying because of “Wild.” “Oh, okay,” she said and went back to sit down. Awkward!

Of course, like many other adaptations, I enjoyed the book more than the film. I hate to be that annoying person that constantly compares the book to the movie, but bear with me for a minute. Let me first say that because the film can’t be six hours long, I understand why some of my favorite parts and characters were cut out. However, it surprised me that the movie didn’t focus a lot more on the relationship between Strayed and her mother. Of course, the loss of Strayed’s mother is a central theme that is woven throughout the film, but we didn’t get much of a build-up that showed just how close the two women were. In my favorite quote from “Wild,” Strayed describes her mother as the “love of my life.” I wish we could have seen even more of their relationship. Not to mention, I can never get enough of Laura Dern.

The film also made Strayed’s journey along the Pacific Coast Trail seem “easier” (I use this word loosely) than it was in real life. For example, in the book, Strayed’s backpack “Monster” was an incredibly heavy, unwieldy beast. With little experience hiking, Strayed packed way too much for the journey. Her battle with carrying Monster was one of the major conflicts in the book. However, in the movie, this issue wasn’t as pronounced. There are two scenes showing Strayed struggling with the bag, but then it was all over. Other major issues from the book, such as her small shoes and trekking over ice, had similar quick resolutions, which I understand for the sake of the movie’s runtime. I just wish the filmmakers had dedicated a little more time to the mother/daughter backstory and continuously reinforce how difficult the entire journey was.

For fans of the book, like me, this movie had a lot to live up to. Thanks to phenomenal performances and beautiful cinematography it definitely succeeds. While I do think this film works best as a supplement to the book, since then you will know more about the hardships Strayed faced, it is certainly a must-see.

My Review: B+/A-

LAUREN BRADSHAW grew up in Courtland, graduated from Southampton Academy and doubled-majored in foreign affairs and history at the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area and can be reached at flickchickdc@gmail.com.