Lost and Found

In 2012, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” was published. It became a bestseller and was the first book chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s reconstituted online version of her book club. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir deals with her 1,100 mile walk along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, from its start in the Mojave Desert to the side trail across the Bridge of the Gods before she stops in Portland, OR. The memoir has now been filmed as Wild.

It is, of course, much more than just the story of a hike. Strayed was in her senior year at the University of Minnesota when her mother Bobbi was diagnosed with cancer and soon passed away. The relationship between mother and daughter is inherently complicated. Bobbi survived an abusive relationship with the father of Cheryl and her brother, eventually leaving him, and her life was pretty much hand-to-mouth for most of her years, but she never became bitter. She’d even signed up for college classes at the same time as Cheryl so she could experience more of life, but the cancer cut her time short. After her mother’s death, Cheryl went on a binge of risky behavior that cost her her first marriage and most of her self-respect. After a moment of crisis, she decided to change her life, and to start that change she’d walk the Pacific Crest Trail. “I’ll walk myself back to who my mother thought I was,” is the way she puts it in the movie.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous film was The Dallas Buyer’s Club. He brings the same attention to detail and support for his actors to this film; qualities that helped Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto win their Oscars last year. It helps that the book is adapted by novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby, who both wrote the novel and then the screenplay for About a Boy and High Fidelity, and who also previously adapted a memoir into the excellent An Education. He stays very close to the book and manages to distill its 300-plus pages into a 2-hour movie. Vallee’s sense of pace is perfect, even with the complexity of the multiple flashbacks within the story of her journey.

While she’s sometimes been typed in the romantic comedy genre with movies like Legally Blond, Sweet Home Alabama, and Four Christmases, Reese Witherspoon hasn’t shied away from complex roles. In Election, Cruel Intentions and her Oscar-winning performance in Walk The Line, she’s shown emotional depth and intelligence. After a somewhat lost period after Line, Wild is a raw, naked performance that re-establishes her prominence as an actress. In addition to acting, Witherspoon was a producer of the film.

While the movie is emotionally intense, it is also leavened by a wry sense of humor. As a novice hiker, Cheryl packs unnecessary items that make her pack almost as large as her. It’s nicknamed ‘monster’ by other hikers, and is a source of physical comedy at the start as she tries to get the pack on her back. The scenery is gorgeous, though Vallee’s camera captures it in a matter-of-fact way rather than dwelling on it as a lesser director might be tempted to do.

The crucial role of Bobbi is played with incredible grace by Laura Dern. She infuses Bobbi with a sunniness that shines from her soul. The rest of the cast is rounded out with veteran performers: Gaby Hoffman (Field of Dreams, You Can Count on Me), Michiel Huisman (“Game of Thrones,” “Orphan Black”) and Thomas Sadoski (“The Newsroom,” John Wick) are among those portraying people Cheryl meets on the trail or in the flashbacks. One of the few differences in the movie from the book is that instead of a man dropping Cheryl off at the trailhead in the Mojave, it’s a woman who drives her there. The change is worth it, since it’s the real Cheryl Strayed in a cameo role.

This morning (January 15) the Oscars nominations were announce. Both Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern were nominate, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Those nominations are well-deserved and will hopefully mean more people will see this wonderful film. As the tag in the title of the book put it, Cheryl Strayed went “from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” That’s a journey many people would like to take in their lives, and perhaps this movie will inspire them to walk themselves back to the person they know they should be.

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