Based on a memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a Minnesota native, it’s no surprise the TCFF screening last month was packed and there were a long line at the RUSH line trying to get tickets to the sold-out showing. As someone who haven’t read the book, I was intrigued by the female-driven story and was expecting to be entertained as well as enlightened. Alas, I got neither.
This movie is like Eat, Pray, Love 2.0 where a white woman in the midst of a life crisis decided to go on a journey of self-discovery. Now, instead of traveling the globe, in the mid 90s Cheryl hiked the 2,663 mi (4,286 km) long trail of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), all by herself. So the first act was quite amusing as we watched the petite Reese Witherspoon struggling to even carry her ginormous backpack twice her size and struggling to figure out how to put up a tent, cook a meal and so on. The film tells us in flashbacks who Cheryl is and how she ended up taking up such an extreme adventure. She went on such an arduous trek without much preparation, I mean the PCT is such a challenging terrain even for most experienced hikers. It seems that Cheryl went through life in a similar reckless manner, prompted by the death of her mother, played by the always affable Laura Dern.
Though her family was poor, Cheryl’s mother was always there for her and she had such a sunny outlook on life even in the most dire circumstances. Her mother’s death from lung cancer wrecked the already-fragile Cheryl and her life went on a downward spiral. She drank, did drugs and slept with any willing man, even in a dirty alleyway. It’s no surprise her humiliated husband divorced her and even she didn’t fault him for doing so. In fact, her last name ‘Strayed’ was made up by Cheryl herself after the divorce, perhaps to signify her lost and philandering ways?
Witherspoon pulled all the stops in portraying Cheryl’s ‘warts and all’ persona, which includes posing nude, swearing up a storm, and pretty much anything we don’t expect from *America’s sweetheart.* But that’s the thing, I felt like the actress tried too hard to shed her ‘good girl’ image here, yet I feel she didn’t quite go far enough. For one I think she still looks too beautiful even sans makeup, never once did I believe her as a desperate person reaching her wit’s end. Some have said it’s a bravura and transformative performance but to me it looks superficial and bait-y, because she didn’t immerse us or make us empathize with the character.
Perhaps an actress with a better range (like Cate Blanchett or even Emily Blunt) might’ve suited this role better. Other than Witherspoon and Dern, there are no other performances worth talking about. I only noticed Michiel Huisman as a guy she hooked up on her journey as I recognized him from some Game of Thrones stills, but he wasn’t given much to do than looking hunky.
The film itself also tried too hard to tug at my heartstrings that it felt manipulative. That is if you weren’t overwhelmed by the repetitive and at times jarring flashbacks to the point of ad nauseam. It’s worth noting that this is Jean Marc Valèe‘s follow-up film after the critically-acclaimed Dallas Buyer’s Club which was nominated for an Oscar, and the script was done by acclaimed writer Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education). Great pedigree to be sure, if only I had been more impressed by the result.
The cinematography by Yves Bélanger of the PCT is perhaps the only thing I admire about this film, I mean it could double as an advertisement for the scenic trail (oh and for REI too, with its blatant product placement). Though the running time was under 2-hours, I felt like it went on for ages and I never felt more relieved to see end credits appearing on screen! I don’t mean to be so down on this movie, I suppose the themes of self-empowerment and perseverance are quite inspiring, but in the end, Cheryl Strayed remains emotionally distant to me.
Have you seen WILD? I’m curious to hear what you think!