MOVIE REVIEW: Wild

  (Image courtesy of Alejandro Riera and the Chicago International Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of Alejandro Riera and the Chicago International Film Festival)

"WILD"-- 4 STARS

50th Chicago International Film Festival Closing Night Film special presentation

The term "chick flick" has a certain overall stigma attached to it that does not tend to be positive.  With all tropes, cliches, and stereotypes in mind, when someone says "chick flick," we, more often than not, immediately think of the spectrum ranging from cheesy and tearjerker romantic comedies and melodramatic made-for-TV trash found on the Lifetime Channel.  Those films strike their certain chords and there's an audience for them, no doubt, but occasionally "chick flicks" can do better and aim higher.  

Like "guy films" and their strengthening of the illusion of manliness, a "chick flick" should have their level of symbolic empowerment for women.  They shouldn't just settle for being another two-hour brainwashing exercise in raising the unrealistic pedestal of romantic ideals even higher or become another sad case of "misery loves company."  When done right, there's a chance for "chick flicks" to be important when they tell the right story with the right themes.  Think "Thelma and Louise" and "Waiting to Exhale" instead of another Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation.

So, when I call "Wild," the new film starring Reese Witherspoon, a "chick flick" of the highest order, I don't mean the tropes, cliches, and stereotypes.  No one is going to put this movie on every Valentine's Day.  It's better than that.  I mean the label from the empowerment and importance standpoint.  "Wild" is the positive kind of "chick flick" that isn't made enough and is drowned out by other crappier efforts targeted at women.  With its true story tale, "Wild" is a strong and substantial film for female audiences.  I do not say this next statement lightly.  "Wild" is truly a film that every woman should see and one they should put on a more preferred pedestal for ideals compared to the "chick flicks" that ruin women's good sense.   Better yet, it's an accessible film for all movie-going clientele, not just the ladies.  There is more than enough here for even the guys to learn. 

"Wild" is directed by Canadian fillmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, who empowered his own slice of demographics last year with the stellar "Dallas Buyers Club."  It is based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling 2012 account "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," which was an Oprah's Book Club addition that year.  Vallee has crafted another small budget and high quality winner that has Oscar potential.  Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a troubled woman with a story set in 1994.  We meet her midway through her story.  She's at her wit's end on the Pacific Crest Trail when her hiking boots (and her toenails) have failed her and she lashes out in pain and frustration.  The questions then bubble up.  What is she doing there?  Is she alone?  How did she arrive at this point?  Where is she heading?  What is she going to do now?

The trailer gives away too much, so I'll be brief and stay shallow in depth.  Cheryl has recently endured a divorce from her Minneapolis husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski of HBO's "The Newsroom") and a personal family loss that sent her into a tailspin of affairs and drugs.  She's always been close to her mother Barbara (a fantastic Laura Dern) and shares many of her free spirit traits.  Cheryl's own mistakes and missteps cause her problems.  In the summer of 1994, she gets it in her mind to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail by herself with no backpacking experience.  The "PCT" is a 2,663-mile hiking trail that spans the north-south length of California, Oregon, and Washington passing through 25 national forests and seven national parks.  It stretches from the Mexican border at Campo, California in the Mojave Desert all the way to the gateway of Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada within the Cascade Mountain range.  Arduous is an understatement.  This is no park stroll for rookies.

Call it Oscar bait if you want, but Reese Witherspoon is a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a category she famously won for 2005's Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line."  Witherspoon has had a relatively quiet post-Oscar career since 2005.  Her powerful and brave performance in "Wild" makes "Walk the Line" feel like ages ago and acted by a different person.  As flawed as her character is, you can't help but root for Cheryl, thanks to who is playing her.  At 38 now, divorced and remarried herself, the ageless-on-the-outside Witherspoon embraces this opportunity to occupy and create a mature and complicated role far different from the ditzes and romantic leads she's known (and pigeon-holed) for.  She is a producer on this film and fought to get it made behind the camera.  This is stellar work from the screen veteran and I wouldn't complain a bit if she won her second golden statuette.  

The very same should be echoed for Laura Dern.  She is a great complimentary presence in this film buoying Witherspoon.  Laura's performance as Cheryl's mother is vibrantly beautiful and is pitch perfect as the inspiration for Cheryl and her quest.  Dern deserves serious consideration for Best Supporting Actress.  After rediscovering her chops and winning a Golden Globe for HBO's "Enlightened," this is the best she's been on the silver screen in quite some time.  Between "Wild," "The Fault of Our Stars," and "When the Game Stands Tall," this has been a fine year for her.  

"Wild," in under two hours, embraces this very personal journey and weaves the emotional threads of background and personal history together for Cheryl Strayed.  Internal monologues and flashbacks enter in to inform us and answer those initial questions about our central character over the course of the film.  This is a film that earns the slow blossom of its progression and makes for an interesting and satisfying movie experience.  You will soon learn that it's not about the trail and the people Cheryl meets along the way.  It's about the person and the private thinking paralleling the physical and mental challenges.  

Where other personal journey films meander, "Wild" moves with great efficiency.  Author Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy," and "Fever Pitch") operates outside of his usual genre to adapt Strayed's novel in just his second independent screenplay.  Canadian cinematographer Yves Belanger lets the simplicity of the landscape do the talking, favoring intimacy over vastness with the enormous setting of natural beauty that backs the film.  That simplicity continues with a period-based soundtrack being used without the accompaniment of a traditionally composed musical score.  That musical switch matches that feeling of internal thoughts and memories in action instead of puffed-up, false crescendos that don't match real life. 

Altogether, director Jean-Marc Vallee combines story with scope to create a tone that resonates with its balance between adventure and anguish.  He is quickly becoming a filmmaking talent to take great notice in.  The emotional highs strike at moments that match and counteract the past woes of Cheryl Strayed.  "Wild" is as good of a movie experience for personal journey and self-exploration as you will find.   I have to say it again, because I sincerely mean it.  Every woman should see this film.  Period.

LESSON #1: DAUGHTERS LIVING UP TO MOTHERS AND VICE VERSA-- The deep connection between Cheryl and Barbara gets a great deal of screen time within the thoughts and flashbacks of "Wild."  We see the special bond and constant comparisons that are inherent with mothers and their daughters.  Daughters, so often, feel the need to match, equal, or exceed the example of their mothers.  Cheryl witnesses her mother get away from an abusive relationship and return to her unfinished education, doing so side-by-side with her own daughter.  Whether daughters see it or not, mothers are trying to live up to their daughters too.  It's not one-up-manship where the mother has to be better than the daughter.  It's about mothers not stopping at one stage in life and continuing to grow as a woman so that your daughters can someday strive to do the same.  

LESSON #2: JOURNEYS OF PERSONAL REFLECTION-- There's something almost carnally and emotional necessary for people to conquer a quest, journey, or adventure alone.  It means more and fulfills more than team efforts do at times.  Companionship is a key human need, but sometimes quality time by one's self affects us greater than being with the people we care about.  Everyone needs these journeys from time to time.  Wanting this doesn't make you selfish or a loner.  During Cheryl's hike, she is constantly thinking and reflecting on her mother, her ex-husband, her mistakes, and her life choices up to the point.  It's a cleansing experience and it's about what our mistakes teach us.  These journeys don't have to be 2,000+-mile hikes through the wilderness.  They can be as small as an afternoon or a few hours alone at your own pace and interests.  The important thing is the you are doing it for you, not for someone else.  Personal reflection is personal and you are your own mind's first and best therapist.

LESSON #3: JOURNEYS OF PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION-- The ideas of reflection and transformation need to be separated as different life lessons.  Reflection is recognizing and thinking about one's issues.  Transformation is the change comes from reflection that starts a new course after those thoughts.  Reflection is only half the task of correcting or conquering one's problems, fears, and goals.  Facing up to change is a difficult thing and sometimes that takes a big personal journey too, where the emphasis is on doing it yourself and on your own.  Just as is is stated in Lesson #2, sometimes this process can only be done alone.  Transformation is hard.  It's supposed to be.  Quitting sometimes wins, but those that don't quit are benefited from the experience.  

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