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Film Review


American literature is filled with returns to nature intended to find enlightenment and heal inner wounds. Most famously, Thoreau spent several years living at Walden Pond, while John Muir trekked the Sierras. In film Werner Herzog explored this beautifully in Into the Wild. There is also a strong religious tradition, in all faiths, of individuals living in the wilderness to experience a closeness to God. Indeed, could not Moses and the tribes' 40 years of wandering in the desert be considered such an experience? Can these experiences, sometimes extreme, lead to the discovery of the true self? Then can the author communicate this experience and engage the reader or viewer?

Jean-Marc Vallee, a Canadian director and screen writer, with The Young Victoria (2009) and the Dallas Buyers Club (2013) to his credit, has taken the story of Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild, to the screen with a film of the same name. In the summer of 1995, at the age of 26, Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, over 1100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border. Strayed had grown up with an abusive father. Her mother was forced to flee with Cheryl and her younger brother, then struggled to make ends meet. They end up living in a cabin without running water or electricity for several years. Strayed's mother dies of cancer, and in anger and grief Strayed plunges into a life of alcohol, heroin and sex. She is married but leaves her loving husband. She finally decided that she had to break free from that life, so she impulsively decided to trek a long, difficult trail, hopefully to find herself. She had no backpacking experience. Her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, was published in 2012 to great acclaim and rose to number one on the NY Times's Best Seller list. Strayed is not her original last name but she renamed herself because she felt she had always been a stray in every sense of the word.

Wild opens with a gorgeous panorama of the Sierras, as Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon in an extraordinary performance), sweaty and out of breath, sits down on a high ridge, takes off her boots, and looks at her bloody feet. Her boots are too small. A accident occurs, Strayed curses fate but painfully soldiers on through the wilderness. The film is structured with flashbacks interspersed with her hiking, with days being introduced by a day count. The flashbacks show her growing up with a very loving mother (played by Laura Dern) trying to keep their tiny home together but cheerful no matter what. And her abusive father. Her dreams are often flashbacks to her very unhappy life after her mother died, when she was submerged in grief and depression. Often there is Strayed's soft narration during various scenes. There are comedic touches as well, beginning from when she first sets her backpack up in her motel room. It is so heavy that it topples her over and she has a hard time getting up. Clearly her monster backpack is a metaphor for her monster baggage. The first time she tries to set up her tent is funny as well, but then she discovers that she had not brought the correct gas for her cooker, so she has a dinner of cold mush. There are other misadventures, then a magical encounter with a fox, which becomes a recurring theme. Although very isolated on the trail she occasionally encounters men, some of whom are kindly while others are menacing. One man gives her much needed help and advice on slimming down her pack, along with a funny moment as he pulls two dozen condom packages out of her pack, giving her a quizzical look. Strayed is a beginning writer, and brings books along. At every log-in box on the trail, she leaves a quote from a famous writer, such as Emily Dickinson. Her journey is a road trip, an inner journey as well as the rocky trail, an odyssey, and she is driven by some of her mother's last words: "find your best self" and "I will always be with you".

Wild is essentially a two character film, Strayed and the wilderness, which means that Witherspoon is in nearly every scene. And she is tremendous. We are appalled by a lot of her behavior, angry at her for her conflicts with her mother, aghast at her naivety, but we come to love her, and perhaps see her as a mirror for some of our own life. More than anything, we become impressed with her determination and grit. There is a great honesty here, and surely an Oscar nominee in store for her performance. Finally, there is a moving voiceover narration by Strayed that talks about her life after her trek. At the end as the credits roll, half the screen shows real photos of Strayed taken during her hike. She is looking directly at us, and I thought asking each of us to "find your best self". It's also startling how much she resembles Reese Witherspoon. Cinematography is outstanding, with most of the film shot on location in Oregon. The soundtrack is tremendous, with a mix of folk and pop songs, anchored by two Simon & Garfunkel classics including Homeward Bound, so appropriate for this film. I loved Wild, and want to emphasize that it is not a woman's film. It is a powerful story of lost, then found. See this on the big screen for its very real sense of isolation and wilderness. Just opened at the Kabuki, the Century Centre (Mission St), the California (Berkeley), the Regency 6 (San Rafael), and the Guild (Menlo Park). Running time: 115 minutes.

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