Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscars 2014: Wild

Witherspoon on the Pacific Crest Trail
Wild (U.S., 2014) directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, 115 minutes

Two Oscar Nominations
Actress in a Leading Role (Reese Witherspoon)
Actress in a Supporting Role (Laura Dern)

Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian director of this film, is an eclectic and intriguing person with wildly varying interests. Who would connect the films WildDallas Buyers Club (2013), Cafe de Flore (2011), The Young Victoria (2009), and C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) with the same director? It would be a challenge to see how these films are linked in theme or interest.  

Based on her memoir, Wild tells the story of  Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), an angry, troubled woman whose demons threaten to engulf her. Her mother Bobbie's (Laura Dern) death from lung cancer at 49 triggers destructive behaviour towards herself and her marriage with Paul (Thomas Sadowski, best known for his role in Newsroom). 

Wild chronicles a Cherys' attempt to climb out of a rapid descent into sex and heroin addiction after the death of her mother. Her chosen method? In the summer of 1995, Cheryl decides to walk the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail across the Mojave desert to the Oregon-Washington border. 

The tribulations are the expected ones initially for a novice backpacker: a too large, too heavy backpack; a water tank that proves to be empty after a painful trek in the desert; ill fitting boots; encounters with possible predatory males on the trail. 

But the journey often appears more inspirational than agonizing. Meaningful quotes are posted along the way during the hike at milestones on the path. Her sympathetic ex-husband Paul sends money along the journey. Strangers are for the most part kind, helpful. One backpacker even comments on how everyone wants to help Cheryl and no one wants to help them because they are men, travelling alone. 

But there are instances of near danger that Cheryl barely skirts - with luck and some determination not to be exploited. This is after all one tough chick, one who, in the past risks all with dangerous behaviour - like having sex with two different men, both strangers, in an alleyway while working as a waitress, as a flashback reveals. This is not the Reese Witherspoon of her portrayals of June Carter Cash or Becky Sharp or even the prim Southern belle's assertions on the  importance of manners which has irked some. 

I am not awed by geography - shots of mountain ranges or deserts do nothing for me - but I do like emotionally complicated people who can speak openly about their lives. Strayed has been foolish, irresponsible, possibly unkind and unfaithful, but never evil and not vicious, despite a desperate and peripatetic childhood and young adult life. 

Some have found the flashbacks distracting but I thought they were fitting - it seemed as if the screenplay by Nick Hornby (best known for his literary efforts) had been constructed to reflect how memory works. Images of her loving relationship with her mother Bobbi, of her abusive father, a disintegrating marriage, drug use, promiscuity ... the flashbacks mirror some of the tortured memories that Strayed would have had during her journey. 

Both women - Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon - are excellent. Dern epitomizes the sunny, nothing-can-get-me-down optimist in a difficult situation and Witherspoon is convincing as the fittingly angry offspring of a troubled marriage. 

P.S. Cheryl Strayed has an "advice podcast"called Dear Sugar that I urge you to check out. Originally she broadcast it under the pseudonym Sugar but since the success of Wild, has now revealed herself to be the author. 

Laura Dern as Bobbi

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