Warning: spoilers ahead. Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2014 film Wild is based on the real life hike made by Cheryl Strayed along 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) was an ambitious student, and considered herself a strong young woman, but she fell apart after the death of her beloved mother Bobbi. As chronicled in flashbacks, Cheryl’s life careened out of control, and her desperation leads her to seek answers on the trail. Along the treacherous hike, Cheryl must confront not only the dangers of the wild, but the uncertainty and grief tearing her apart. As someone who was born in a third world country, and whose mother was raised in third world poverty, I come at this “finding yourself in the wild/foreign country” genre with extreme skepticism. I realize that films like Wild and 2007’s Into the Wild (among many others) chronicle the real-life experiences of the people who made these journeys, so my skepticism isn’t based on the veracity of the stories, but rather of the privilege required to undertake them. What the internet colloquially terms “First World Problems” I refer to as unchecked privilege. These relatively secure (usually white) individuals have the opportunity to take weeks, even months, away for self-reflection while the rest of us are trying to eek out a living, and to put food on the table for our families. Point in fact: people like Cheryl get to come back from using hard drugs; for the rest of us, even mild drug use could result in perpetual incarceration. Needless to say, I didn’t think I would connect with Cheryl or her quest.
It came as a complete surprise, then, when I did. Cheryl’s breakdown is the result of deep-seated grief and regret. Her mother, poignantly and beautifully portrayed by Laura Dern in Academy Award-nominated performance, was a woman who wanted to experience and enjoy all that life had to offer. Bobbi’s vibrancy makes it all that more infuriating to Cheryl (and to us) when her health takes a turn. This loss is particularly gutting when Cheryl reflects on all the ways she and the family let Bobbi down. It is both deeply personal and completely universal. We all have loved ones we’ve let down at one time or another. We all have or will experience loss. It is in conveying the beauty of Bobbi’s humble little life that the movie shines. Bobbi was unexceptional to the world, but she was the world to Cheryl. In a supporting role, Thomas Sadoski (known to HBO viewers from The Newsroom) is characteristically solid as Cheryl’s ex-husband Paul, who loves and encourages her every step of the way. While the flashbacks to Cheryl and Bobbi’s journeys are heartbreaking, I don’t feel as connected to the hike. I understand that Cheryl was seeking direction in the silence of the wild, but we didn’t really get a sense of the wilderness itself. Most of the predators she encounters are of the human variety, and most of the people she meets are under-developed, since they are people she meets briefly in passing. The fact that she attempts the hike at all is remarkable, but I feel that she didn’t learn anything from the wild, just from the lack of distractions. Nevertheless, watching the film is a journey worth taking. Wild premieres on HBO on September 9th. Take in this promo clip.