Film review: Wild (15, 115 mins) Drama

Wild: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed

Wild: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed

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Thousand-mile journey to the Oscars

It’s a perfect paradox.

Sometimes to find yourself, you have to completely lose yourself: strip yourself bare of home comforts, temporarily sever emotional ties and stare your demons in the eye.

Only when you hit rock bottom with an almighty thump can you honestly assess your strengths and frailties, and gain a deeper appreciation for the people who are important to you.

In 1994, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed decided to come to terms with the death of her mother by embarking on a gruelling 1,100-mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.

She was ill-prepared for her odyssey, weighed down by a cumbersome backpack overstuffed with useless items including the wrong gas canister for her cooking stove. Alone in this unforgiving wilderness, Cheryl initially relied on the kindness of strangers to survive, but gradually nurtured her survival instincts to overcome her fears and the perilous terrain.

She subsequently penned the moving memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, which British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) has adapted beautifully and elegantly for the big screen.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s film opens with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) at a critical and painful juncture of her trek.Standing on a ridge above a breathtaking northern Californian vista, she removes one of her hiking boots and a bloodied sock then tears off a loose toenail.

The jolt of pain sparks a miasma of flashbacks to Cheryl’s past and her bond with her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who is diagnosed with lung cancer and dies when Cheryl is 22.

There are scenes of domestic intimacy and tension with her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and her best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann), who sends food parcels for Cheryl to collect along the route.

Her exhausting journey is punctuated by nightmarish memories of Cheryl’s descent into sex and alcohol-fuelled oblivion – a futile effort to salve the pain of Bobbi’s death, which sounds the death knell for her marriage.

“I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,” Cheryl resolves.

Anchored by a tour-de-force performance from Witherspoon that is a shoo-in for Oscar consideration, Wild is an emotionally uplifting drama that celebrates the endurance of the human spirit and the restorative power of a mother’s love.

Vallee, who helmed yesteryear’s Oscar winner The Dallas Buyers Club, directs with flair, juxtaposing the picturesque splendour of Cheryl’s surroundings with the internal darkness that nudges her to the brink of self-destruction.

The fragmented timeline doesn’t impact greatly on dramatic momentum and Hornby sketches some powerful scenes of threat and self-reflection including a moving encounter on the trail with a woman and her grandson that finally opens Cheryl’s floodgates and loosens ours too.

Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Gaby Hoffmann, Michiel Huisman, W Earl Brown. Director: Jean-Marc Vallee.

Released: January 16 (UK & Ireland)

Star rating: 8/10