Cheryl Strayed was a mess. She was in the midst of divorcing her husband. She was using heroin. She was lost. So, in the summer of 1995, she figured maybe she could find herself by hiking a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Which she did. And then she wrote a book about her transformative experience. And now it's a movie.
Please, everyone stop with the "Oh, this is the movie where Reese Witherspoon looks like hell." Because this is the movie where Reese Witherspoon gets to stop being a pretty doll moved around like a pawn in support of a man's story (except for Legally Blonde; that's an awesome woman's story) and gets to be as hugely, humanly screwed-up and complex as her male counterparts.
This requires not giving a damn about vanity. This is what it looks like when women get to be people onscreen. There's nothing shocking about it ... except how infrequently it happens.
Wild is an unabashedly feminist film. Nick Hornby's script actually uses the F word, and actually has this word coming out of the mouths of women, who aren't even ashamed of it. Witherspoon's Cheryl has a conversation with her mother (the always wonderful Laura Dern), who laments how she never had her own life, just went from being a daughter to a wife to a mother, always defined by what she was supposed to be doing for other people. Wonder of wonders, this is a movie that shows what it means for women to have their own lives, to just be for themselves and for no one else. Not forever (though that would be OK, too) but just for a while.
On Day 1, as she's setting out on a desert trail with a pack as big as she is, Cheryl wonders, "What have I done?" People she meets on the trail are surprised to see a woman hiking alone: This is not done. But she's doing it.
And I would love for Wild to be seen by little girls and young women as an example of why women, too, and not just men, should see that things that are demanding can also be inspiring and rewarding. There are hard things that are worth doing, and girls don't hear this often enough. Or ever.
Which makes Cheryl an even more interesting person: She had extra roadblocks to overcome that a man wouldn't have. Men do stuff like this because it's dangerous and risky; it's part (or all) of the appeal. But women aren't supposed to do stuff like this for the same reasons.
Kudos to director Jean-Marc Vallée and Hornby for nailing one aspect of a woman's perspective that I have never seen on screen before. It's the wariness with which women always — always — have to deal with strange men.
Cheryl meets a lot of men on her months-long trek, because it's almost all men doing the same hike. And Wild rightfully acknowledges a thing that most women know: Most men aren't dangerous, not even the ones who turn out to be creeps and jerks. But we never know which one is going to be the exception. And Vallée creates enormous suspense at every single instance when Cheryl faces an encounter with a male stranger: Is this that one?
There are universal aspects to Cheryl's story, too, of course. There's a clever and moving scene at a waystation campground on the trail, where an experienced hiker helps her whittle down her ridiculously overlarge pack, which becomes a metaphor for the problems in her life, a literal "losing the baggage" bit. And the film's approach to Cheryl's issues are wonderfully humane and generous: There is no shaming in her past on the part of the film, and Cheryl's conclusions — that she can accept her mistakes as part of how she got to where she is now — contain a wisdom that we can all learn from. Forgiving ourselves might be another hard thing, but it's another hard thing worth doing.
This is a film full of spectacular landscapes, both of the exterior natural world and the interior human spirit. Reese Witherspoon looks like hell from her months in the wild without a stylist or a shower? No way. She looks gorgeous: vital, strong, energetic, happy. Triumphant.