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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Wild movie review (London Film Festival)

Wild green light

A film full of spectacular landscapes of both the natural world and the human spirit. This is what it looks like when women get to be people onscreen.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for stories about women

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Cheryl Strayed was a mess. She was in the midst of divorcing her husband; she’d ruined their marriage with her constant random fucking of strangers. She was using heroin. She was lost. So, in the summer of 1995, she figured maybe she might be able to find herself by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Which she did. And then she wrote a book about her transformative experience. And now it’s a movie.

Please, everyone stop with the “Oh, this is the movie where Reese Witherspoon looks like hell” and the “Hey, Witherspoon is finally doing a sex scene.” You are part of the problem. Because this is the movie where Reese Witherspoon gets to stop being a pretty doll moved around like a pawn in support of a man’s story (except for Legally Blonde; that’s an awesome woman’s story) and gets to be as hugely, honkingly, humanly screwed up and complex and fascinating and dealing with her own shit as men get to be on film. This requires not giving a damn about vanity. This is what it looks like when women get to be people onscreen. There’s nothing shocking about… except how infrequently it happens.

Wild is an unabashedly feminist film. I mean, Nick Hornby’s (A Long Way Down, An Education) script actually uses the F word, actually has this word coming out of the mouths of women, who aren’t even ashamed of it. Witherspoon’s (Devil’s Knot, This Means War) Cheryl has a conversation with her mother (the always wonderful Laura Dern: The Fault in Our Stars, Little Fockers), who laments how she never had her own life, just went from being a daughter to a wife to a mother, always defined by what she was supposed to be doing for other people. Wonder of wonders, this is a movie in which women talk about how necessary it is for women to have their own lives. And this is a movie that shows what it means for women to have their own lives, to just be for themselves and for no one else. Not forever (though that would be okay, too) but just for a while.

It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly when we — the big We, our culture at large — has no template for this. Certainly no template for the adventure that Cheryl sets out on. Women don’t do adventure, and so right on Day 1, as she is setting out on a desert trail with a pack as big as she is, Cheryl wonders, “What the fuck have I done?” And then she tells herself, “You can quit any time.” But she can’t, of course. Because the whole point of her adventure is to push herself, to challenge herself. People she meets on the trail are surprised to see a woman hiking alone: this is Not Done. But she’s doing it. And I would love for Wild to be seen by little girls and young women as an example of why women, too, and not just men, should see that things that are demanding can also be inspiring and rewarding. There are hard things that are worth doing, and girls don’t hear this often enough. Or ever. Which makes Cheryl an even more interesting person: she had extra roadblocks to overcome that a man wouldn’t have. Men do stuff like this because it’s dangerous and risky; it’s part (or all) of the appeal. But women aren’t supposed to do stuff like this for the same reasons. Wait, what?

Kudos to director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and Hornby for nailing one aspect of a woman’s perspective that I have never seen onscreen before. (Kudos to Witherspoon, too, but I suspect she already knows this and it wasn’t much of a stretch for her.) It’s the wariness with which women always — always — have to deal with strange men. Cheryl meets a lot of men on her months’ long trek, because it’s almost all men doing the same hike. And Wild rightfully readily and even cheerily acknowledges a thing that most women know: Most men aren’t dangerous, not even the ones who turn out to be creeps and jerks. But we never know which one is going to be the exception. And Vallée creates enormous suspense at every single instance when Cheryl faces an encounter with a male stranger: Is this going to be the moment of her rape and murder? (She survived to write the book, so it’s no spoiler to reveal that she does not, in fact, get hacked to pieces on the trail.) This reality of women’s lives is the source of one of the funniest and shrewdest lines of dialogue in the movie… and I would hope that boys and young men might gain a new appreciation from this for what it is like to be a woman in our world.

There are universal aspects to Cheryl’s story, too, of course. (Because, as previously mentioned: she’s human.) There’s a clever and moving scene at a waystation campground on the trail where an experienced hiker helps her whittle down her ridiculously overlarge pack that becomes a metaphor for the problems in her life, a literal “losing the baggage” bit. (Do you really need to hang on to this thing you’re lugging around? Well, no… but this other thing is kind of important to keep.) And the film’s approach to Cheryl’s issues is wonderfully humane and generous: There is no shaming for her past on the part of the film, and Cheryl’s conclusions — that she can accept her mistakes as part of how she got to where she is now — contain a wisdom that we can all learn from. Forgiving ourselves might be another hard thing, but it’s another hard thing worth doing.

This is a film full of spectacular landscapes, both of the exterior natural world and the interior human spirit. Reese Witherspoon looks like hell from her months in the wild without a stylist or a shower? Fuck that. She looks gorgeous: vital, strong, energetic, happy. Triumphant.

viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Wild for its representation of girls and women.


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