Movie Review: “Wild” Is My “Boyhood”

Wild sang me a song of myself. Where Boyhood missed, for me, Wild took me places. Before you jump to judge, I will preface by saying that there is nothing at face value about my childhood that directly aligns with that of Cheryl Strayed’s. But just because I had a privileged childhood sans an “abusive, alcoholic asshole” for a father does not mean for a second that I didn’t have my share of struggles and consequent sojourns.

Although there’s something very expected about the plot, the arc, and even the central characters, I didn’t much mind. At times, I found the dialogue contrived and the male supporting actors miserable. Thomas Sadoski brought little to the film. Not to hate, I think he was fabulous in Newsroom, but he requires ignition from excellent, dialogue-driven screenplays (don’t get me started on my adoration of Aaron Sorkin). This was not it. (But it wasn’t really about him, so it didn’t need to be).

Reese Withersppon was awesome. Although I don’t think her performance as a whole in Wild can eclipse her work in Walk the Line, she deserves a lot of credit for her commitment and courage. She possesses a great, wide range that sings on the trail and off. Never overreaching, she carries into each moment the whole life of the character with her, like the pack on her back. I imagine this is what they try to teach ballet dancers: extension.

Director, Jean-Marc Vallée is cited as the “unsung hero” of the film, and I think there’s certainly something to be said for his cuts and control. I could see how it might have spiraled out a bit without decisive direction, what with the fairly linear hike plot peppered with an inconstant quality to the flashback scenes. Wild gets right to it. It would have been easy to languish in some of the heavier moments, but it almost accelerates through them. So, when we come to a scene with Strayed and her younger brother praying in bed, the impact is palpable.

The little things really went the distance for me with Wild and especially with Witherspoon. She embodies in her acting the essence of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my short life: obstacles are opportunities. Struggling over that first big obstacle, that hugeass rock, unsure of her footing and timidly testing her instincts, as opposed to her sure-fire, yet still fumbling, attempt to ford that river, breathes depth where dialogue dwindles.

This speaks to me in a way in which none of the characters actually uttered. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s not always about success by someone else’s standards. She almost gets swept away in the waters. It was graceless, yet calculated. Strayed had learned to trust herself that she would get to where she wanted to go, hindering hesitance.

Sometimes, also, those obstacles are yourself. At the top of my Google search for “Wild film” is Leah Finnegan’s (of Gawker) haterade unconsidered, click-bait meltdown. She claims that Witherspoon “couldn’t act like a sympathetic character if there was an Uzi to her back.” I actually kind of like this, Leah. This, to me, proves that Witherspoon got it just right. I don’t believe Cheryl Strayed is, or was, meant to be a sympathetic character. She struggles sympathizing with herself.

This is a flawed review, and I’m not simply saying so because I take a fundamental stance against the argument. Finnegan even, nay especially, cannot divide the character from actress. She goes on to write, “Witherspoon is a sniveling, Flickian, narcissistic bitch…” which should read, “Strayed is a sniveling, Flickian, narcissistic bitch.” Which, at times, she is. This is developed in the heart-wrenching scene with Strayed quips at her mother for not having been nearly as sophisticated as she is at her age. If she wasn’t so flawed, and I’m not talking just about the heroine use or the cheating, why would she be so preoccupied with redemption?

Other high points for me included:

– How clean Strayed nails were at the beginning of the film when she dials her ex-husband. This is a curious, clean canvas.

– The select times she regards herself in the mirror. These moments are literally reflective, but also serve as cinematic commas. It is beautiful to notice when she allows herself visual self-reference.

– The role of animals. The fox was a bit forced, but the rattlesnake and the llama were great as they both confronted her, challenging the wild inside. The horse? Well, the horse was heartbreaking.

I want to emphasize something that probably isn’t a common take-away from this film. Children, especially girls, need to be encouraged to explore. Believe it, or not, I was a tomboy until I “came of age” and got a party dress for my bat mitzvah. I did the outward bound summer outdoors, cargo shorts and all. This is something that I am so grateful for. I learned, from a very early age, that I can survive, I can surmount, and it’s ok to struggle. I don’t want my future daughter to have to find these things out after I have left her.

That’s not to say that I haven’t ever lost the plot. I have had considerable doubts in myself and have almost crumbled under some of the issues in my life. But, like riding a bicycle, I was able to bounce back faster than the textbooks tell. I owe a lot of that to my childhood spent barefoot in the woods.


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