Monday, June 15, 2015

Film Review: Wild

Long ago in a different life, I had worked as a high school English and Drama teacher. In that role, I had the opportunity to teach the book, Jurrassic Park to high school freshmen. The students were enthralled, they had all seen the movie and were upset that the film didn't have everything in it that the book had...

"The book is better, Mr. Martin," they told me. And as a young teacher, I thought I had accomplished something with that.

But then I went to graduate school and studied writing with an emphasis on theater, film and criticism. (That was also when I started guiding.) In any case, I discovered that a book cannot be better than a movie. A book can only be better than another book. A movie can only be better than another movie. I discovered that these are different mediums and though they tell the same story, they can't really be compared effectively.

Books and films are different. A book is a very personal experience. You are inside the writer's head. A film can be a personal experience or a communal experience, but regardless of the way the content is consumed, the way the content is presented is uniformly different than that of a book...

And that brings us to the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's Wild. I absolutely adored the book. I truly feel that it is a great work of outdoor adventure literature. And I said so with an in depth book review a few years back.

Wild -- staring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed -- is the story of a woman who hikes a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail after loosing her mother. Cheryl hikes the trail to rid herself of the demons that haunted her after her mother's death. After her mom died, she quickly fell apart with a combination of drug abuse, random affairs, and the end of her young marriage. Cheryl knew that she needed a change. She needed to find a way to deal with her grief while building herself back up; so with little knowledge of wilderness travel, she decided to hike a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The young woman didn't really understand what she was getting herself into. She had never been backpacking before and she had no idea how to pack her pack or how to select boots for the trip, or even how to light her stove.

Right from the start the film version of Wild had one major piece of the book working against it. The story is a deep exploration of pain and grief that is ultimately cured by a self-imposed wilderness therapy. Clearly this is heady and hard to do in a screenplay. Novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) was the perfect writer to adapt the autobiography. He understood how to get into Cheryl's head and how to present the dual story of her wilderness adventure with what lead her to the backcountry.

This isn't to say that the screenplay is perfect. Some of the flashbacks are hard to understand and key moments of the book appear are brushed over. For example, in the film she announces that she's pregnant and then it just seems to go away. It's never addressed later on. And a key moment with the death of a family pet that symbolizes the loss of Cheryl's mother happens quickly with little explanation and doesn't have anywhere near the impact it has in the book.

However, as stated at the beginning, this is a film and not a book. Director Jean-Marc Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) has a keen eye for shooting the wilderness. Many shots bring us to the PCT and to the cathartic experience that Cheryl had on her long-distance hike. One can understand why the wilderness impacted her and how she found her way into her soul through the experience via the work that Vallée did to bring us to the trail.

Reese Witherspoon (Election, Water for Elephants, Mud) is one of those actresses who is in dozens of films, but that you don't think about too much. She's always adequate in her roles, but she often doesn't stand out as being exceptional. But this was something different. This film allowed her to shine. It allowed her to show what she could really do. And indeed, she was nominated for Best Actress in the Academy Awards for her work in the film. We understand Cheryl through Witherspoon's portrayal and we understand her need to find herself...which is no easy task with a cerebral piece like this.

Ultimately, Wild is a very good, but not a great film. It aspires to be great and many of the elements are there -- we have an emotional ride with an excellent actress, a strong screenplay put together by a well-versed director -- but it doesn't quite make it. The flashbacks don't always work and that occasionally takes us out of the story. That's not to say that this film isn't worth your time. It is. It's incredibly engaging. Not only that, but there aren't that many serious films about the wilderness and what it does for people, and that alone makes it an important film for our community...

--Jason D. Martin

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