Reese Witherspoon has had a tumultuous few years career-wise. We’ve seen her go from one of Hollywood’s most top-rated actresses to watching her in films that flopped at the box office. And now after a few years, it seems she’s back on her feet in Wild, a story about a woman who finds herself again after her life takes a turn for the worse. Witherspoon’s name has already been dropped here and there for awards consideration, and the role, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, really brings the actress back into the acting ring.
Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is on a mission. One that includes a 1000-mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which spans from the border of Mexico up to Canada. She’s running away from, or leaving behind her old life and stepping into a new her. Because she is married to a great guy (Thomas Sadoski), only to then lose someone she loves very much (not her husband), and takes a few very life-changing paths that cause her to become a person she no longer recognizes. So the 1000-mile hike is a way to prove to herself that she can still do something worthwhile, still live, still become the person her mother (Laura Dern) would be proud of. However, long days, long nights, alone and doubtful most every step of the way of why she’s doing this, Cheryl’s journey proves to be more difficult than she bargains for.
Witherspoon, who helped produce the film, walks in Strayed’s shoes as though she herself is trying to prove something. Which she probably is, and she does. The actress’ portrayal of Strayed is well done, a bit parallel to her character, but there are times where she feels a bit miscast, especially in the flashback scenes where we’re privy to her heroine junkie days and the many infidelities she commits. These scenes in particular, and perhaps it’s because we’re not particularly used to seeing Witherspoon in this kind of role, take a bit of time to reconcile the actress with the woman we’re seeing onscreen. Regardless of this, however, Witherspoon still gives us a performance with more passion than we’ve seen from her in a while.
The film itself is very feel-good, hopeful. The struggle of a lifetime after a dark cloud that will eventually lead the character into the light kind of film. There’s definitely a lot to like. There’s something almost serene about the entire way it’s shot. Filled with a long trek, Dallas Buyer’s Club director Jean-Marc Vallee definitely doesn’t leave us on the trails. The film’s themes of finding yourself, losing but not forgetting, and of personal change are things we can all relate to.
Outside of the hike, the best and most powerful parts of the film come in the flashback scenes between Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who is the epitome of a loving mother. It’s jarring the difference between these scenes and the hike itself, but not in a way that takes you out of the film. Vallee, in fact, adds much more dynamic and depth to a film that could have easily gone the way of Eat, Pray, Love, but Wild is very much powered by the character interactions more so than the hiking journey itself. The interactions between Strayed and her mother are what fuel the film and give reason to every choice and the heavy heart you’ll feel should be credited to the great mother-daughter chemistry between Witherspoon and Dern, although, fun fact, Dern is only nine years older than her onscreen daughter.
Ultimately, Witherspoon puts in a great performance, one with much more gusto than anything we’ve seen her in lately. Although her performance isn’t perfect, it will probably lead her into being a contender during awards season. Vallee’s last film was highly regarded and he’s one of the best at giving us a struggling character we can all root for, which he does here. Wild is most definitely a hopeful film that most everyone will like. It has drama and good character interactions and Laura Dern, especially, shines the light on the entire film and gives it much more oomph with her presence.