By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Jean Marc Vallee, director of one of my favorite films of 2013 (Dallas Buyers Club), returns this year with another affecting true story. The acclaimed director has, with screenwriter Nick Hornsby, adapted Cheryl Strayed’s critically acclaimed and best selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. With this moving and poignant film, Vallee has scored another cinematic winner which deserves nominations, especially for lead actress Reese Witherspoon who delivers a raw and powerful performance. Vallee’s new film not only won my heart, but also my vote for the best film of the 2014 Austin Film Festival and for one of the best films of the year.
Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a writer who has seriously hit a rock bottom moment in her life. Following the death of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), Stayed is left lost and anguished. Bobbi, who raised Cheryl and her siblings, had been a bright and warm presence in Cheryl’s life and offered her much strength and encouragement. Unable to cope with the loss of this great love, Cheryl turns to drug abuse and sexual promiscuity to soothe her pain. After her self-destructive behavior destroys her marriage, Cheryl decides to go clean and take a sabbatical for healing and introspection. Strayed decides to hike the 1.100 mile Pacific Crest Trail. During this challenging and treacherous journey, she not only learns much about hiking and survival, but also reflects on her life and the choices which have lead her here.
Nick Hornsby (About a Boy, An Education) has written another superb script which beautifully captures all of the emotional highs and lows of Strayed’s life experiences and her introspective and perilous journey. Vallee and cinematographer Yves Belanger have exceptionally recreated these moments for cinema and it is absolutely breathtaking, often heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiriting. The filmmakers behind this movie do deserve high praise; however, it is Reese Witherspoon whose performance deserves the highest acclaim of all.
Witherspoon delivers what may be her most candid and passionate performance of her career. With a good amount of the film’s runt time focused on Witherspoon hiking and battling elements and tough terrain solo, her tremendous acting drives the film and succeeds in keeping its audience enthralled. In the lovely and painful flashback scenes, she is a natural at portraying these realistic recreations of real events in Strayed’s life. Witherspoon boldly and courageously portrays even some of Strayed’s lower moments genuinely. In addition to Reese, the lovely Laura Dern offers a beautiful portrayal of Cheryl’s mother Bobbi Grey. With her natural charisma exuding over Cheryl’s hero and light in her life, Dern is the perfect choice to portray Bobbi and the film’s audience definitely feels some of the pain caused by her loss in Strayed’s life.
The subject of losing a loved one and overcoming grief is one that has been examined in numerous feature films, but this particular movie stands out because of its raw and unadulterated approach to the subject matter. Vallee, Hornsby, and Witherspoon excel in recreating Cheryl Strayed’s very personal story which effectively takes its audience on an unrelenting emotional roller coaster ride through all the joys, sorrows, and shames of her life. It is a deeply moving experience which I must highly recommend for all adult audiences.