Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dispatches from the Popcorn Trail: Wild

Note: Normally this feature would be part of our other blog, Doctor Strangeblog, but due to this Wild being about a long distance hike, it seemed like a good opportunity for a cross-over post. In short, this is a very lazy way of creating two posts for the price of one!

In the film Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is not an exemplary long distance hiker. She heads off to start her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail with an overstuffed and oversized pack. She isn't the greatest at following "Leave No Trace", letting some of her trash just get carried away in the wind. She clearly did very little research or planning before her hike, buying shoes that were too small and purchasing the wrong kind of fuel for her camp stove. If her story as a hiker is useful, it's only as a cautionary tale to those who are considering a long distance hike.

However, Wild isn't just a film about a hiker. It's about a young woman, shattered by the sudden loss of her mother, and how she picks up the pieces and moves on to a new and better place. Her hike is just a means to that end, which in and of itself is a beginning of its own.

Based on the popular memoir by Cheryl Strayed*, the film for the most part stays true to the book. Some characters are excised completely, some events merged or moved around, and a few stories cut completely. However, these changes mostly work to the favor of the film, streamlining it and keeping it focused on Cheryl and her relationship with her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). Like the book, the film keeps a structure of following Cheryl along her hike from Mojave to Kennedy Meadows, and again from north of Lake Tahoe to the Bridge of the Gods. Also like the book, it intersperses flashbacks, showing events that happened from Cheryl's childhood to the moment she decided to make the hike.

Music is an integral part of the film. The most prevalent song is the cover of "El Condor Pasa" by Simon and Garfunkel, but there are others, all of which represents the "mixtape-radio-station" that Cheryl frequently hummed from memory during her hike. This device is used several times during the film, with Witherspoon humming portions of several of these songs, often later being shown as being sung or played in the background in past memories.

Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern both do an excellent job with their parts. Although Dern's part is relatively small in terms of screen time, it's a crucial part to make the film work. Cheryl's relationship with her mother is the foundation of the story, and had she played it wrong, it could have derailed Cheryl's motivation and turned this into a well produced, but ultimately mediocre personal journey story.

Witherspoon does a great job of bringing a very complicated character to life. This isn't some vanilla hero walking along the trail. She conveys the heartbreak and rage she felt at her mother's young death from cancer, and her annoyance with the pain, boredom, terror, and joy that hiking can bring. Not every one of the flashbacks work perfectly, but she nails the important ones. Because of a string of not so great movies, its too easy to overlook how great (and fearless) of an actress Witherspoon can be when she really has a great part. Cheryl is a great example of how to write and play a great character who happens to be a woman, rather than just a "woman" character.

In 1995, when Strayed hiked the PCT, a woman hiker on the trail was considered pretty rare. The trail itself had only been "open" for a few years at that point, so even male long distance hikers outside the John Muir Trail were considered pretty uncommon. The film shows the less common story of women long distance hikers in many ways, often in how she interacts with men along the trail. At one point she lies about her husband being on the trail, uncertain about the farmer** that is taking her to his (and his wife's) house for a meal, a hot shower, and a place to sleep. It turns out he's a harmless trail angel for Cheryl, but not everyone she encounters is so nice, such as the two skeevy hunters who she lets use her water filter.

Wild was one of my favorite books I've read recently, so when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation, I was a bit worried. The long list of terrible adaptations had me worried it was going to be pounded down into some focus group feel-good Oscar bait picture. This fear was mostly dispelled upon reading early reviews, seeing the trailer, and even before that a picture of a disheveled Witherspoon with "Monster"***. I've already seen Wild several times, and highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether they've hiked the U.S. Triple Crown**** or never hiked a mile.

Verdict: Strongly Recommend 

* The author has a cameo in the film, as the driver that drops...umm...Cheryl off at the motel before she began her hike.
** At least I think he was a farmer. He rode a tractor around the desert until after the sun went down, but its never clear what he's doing.
*** The name given to her behemoth of a pack by a fellow hiker
**** The title given to someone who has hiked the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian trails.

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