Wild

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Wild
This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene.
Year of Release: 2014.
Rating: R for sex, drug use, and a whole lotta “fucks” as the harsh wilderness teaches Reese a thing or two.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No, but it’s in theatres!
Spoilers: Very mild. Cheryl hikes and stuff happens.

I’m pretty sure this is the first theatrical release review that I’ve written on this blog. Welcome to awards season, y’all.

If your Nerve deny you, go above your nerve. The quote featured in the beginning of the trailer is from Emily Dickenson, and even though my feelings on this poet are less than pleasant (a fellow English major I knew in college used to wear a shirt emblazoned with “Hey Emily Dickenson – the vacuum wants it suck back!”), it’s great advice for the new year. Reese Witherspoon is rightfully earning all sorts of buzz for her role as Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. In 1995, Strayed hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Coast Trail in order to come to terms with her mother’s death and a menagerie of subsequent bad choices, all of which drive the film into unsettling places.

In the first few scenes – after a flash-forward of our protagonist furiously hurling her hiking boots down a mountain – Cheryl is your typical 26-year-old novice hiker. She’s small, weak, and packed way too much shit. For a solid five minutes, she squirms around on her hotel room floor under the weight of her provisions like an overturned potato bug until finally dead-lifting to her feet. And then she is ready, or as ready as she’ll ever be.

At first, as Cheryl hikes, she is too focused on costly errors in judgment to be preoccupied with anything beyond her immediate needs. After realizing that she bought the wrong kind of fuel for her stove and quickly tiring of cold mush, she thumbs a ride back into town for a hot meal and supplies. It is this initial human contact on the trail that causes Cheryl to think about her own family, and here we start receiving more bits and pieces of her backstory.

This is when Laura Dern enters the picture as Cheryl’s mother. This is also when I decide that if Laura Dern does not receive a best supporting actress Oscar nod, there is no justice in the world. Because as accurately as Laura portrays Cheryl’s rendering of Bobbi in the book, she is somehow simultaneously everyone’s mother. Bobbi Grey is the financially strapped single woman who leaves her abusive husband in the middle of the night in order to protect her family, but her performance never feels cliché or trite. There’s a warmth and authenticity that anyone raised by a mother who tried to make the best of poverty or emotional/physical abuse in the home can identify with. “How much do I love you?” Bobbi asks her kids, smiling in the kitchen doorframe. “This much? This much?” She moves her hands farther and farther apart, but her love is always greater.

If this film doesn’t leave you wanting to hug your mother like those Sarah McLachlan commercials make you pine away for your dog or cat, there might be something wrong with you. Just saying.

There’s a scene in the first season of Orange is the New Black when Piper, during a “scared straight” stint, tells one of the delinquent teenagers that the truly scary part of prison is “coming face to face with who you really are.” “I’m scared that I’m not myself in here,” Piper says, “and I’m scared that I am.” In longer stretches than a stress-relieving run or a nice walk through the park, solitude can be a very ugly thing. My creative writing students discovered this on a wilderness trek assignment where they had to visit an outdoor place of personal significance and write a narrative chronicling their journey. Prepared for a peaceful stroll, all of them were surprised to have confronted some very dark places. Lost loves, abuse, deaths of family members and friends, and even a miscarriage surfaced. Like Cheryl, they all came back from the assignment changed. Also like Cheryl, they were finally able to let some things go.

Solitude causes time to operate in funny ways. While watching Wild, I felt as though past and present were moving parallel to one another, alternating between splices of hospital stays, heroin binges, and unraveling relationships and the very real threats that Cheryl cannot take her mind off of in the present. I’ve always loved a good survival narrative, but I appreciate the special attention Wild gives to female hikers and travelers, illuminating the very real dangers we face every day in traditionally “off limits” spaces. Through this navigation, Cheryl reaches the bridge to Washington State and finds herself with a power she never knew she had. The power to withstand the elements and the psychological strain and the potential rapists, yes, but also the power to forgive herself.

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