Every so often, I feel like I’m going to lose it. The walls are closing in. Social media doesn’t give me a free moment. Everything is wrong and I just need to get away before my brain finally breaks once and for all. They’re fleeting moments, but they happen.
Of course, wanting to escape from today’s busy world is a litttttle bit different than escaping to repair the damage of losing a parent, as Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) does in Wild. Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) was her life. She doesn’t know how to live without her. Cheryl destroys her own life with anonymous sex and heroin in an attempt to fill that awful empty void that is eating her up.
Cheryl hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to hit the reset button. Over 100 miles of coastal travel to find herself, with the desert, snow, woods, and all the unpleasantness that those conditions bring. It’s a rough ride for an experienced hiker, let alone someone like Cheryl, who hasn’t been training for this. It’s a desperate, lonely journey of personal discovery featuring an often unlikeable protagonist. Cheryl is damaged goods and knows it. She’s flawed and she knows it, hence the big hike. It helps Wild feel more natural and worthwhile.
As someone who has also lost his mother, I get it. I didn’t get hooked on anything. I didn’t need to leave the world behind for a few months to recover. But I know that vacant feeling. The details of Bobbi’s death hit close to home. Too close. I lost it a bit in the theater. It’s a loss that you can never really move on from. Pain doesn’t leave you overnight. Pain lingers. While some just become a little more numb in reaction to that loss, others just need to wreck what they have. Cheryl had to tear it all down and start over from scratch.
Laura Dern gives Bobbi the right balance of vulnerability and trying to remain strong for your children that the role requires. Reese Witherspoon does some of the best work of her career here (I’m still partial to her role as June Carter in Walk the Line). She manages to give young Cheryl the right amount of vulnerability, hope, and anger. She gives hikin’ Cheryl a certain wariness and weariness as she trudges down her path. There’s plenty of other goods performances and scenes in Wild, but it ultimately comes down to its leading ladies.
Wild might be dismissed by some as a narcissistic tale of some white lady with problems, but that’s short-sighted. Losing a parent too soon deeply affects you. The road back to a semblance of normal isn’t easy. Wild might be an extreme example. It’s still a tale of resilience and bouncing back from trauma. There are moments that seem too simple, moments that need to be expanded upon, but the core story is strong, as are the lead performances of Witherspoon and Dern.