Time Out says
The so-real-it-hurts Laura Dern is a cinematic treasure at this point: In Wild, the actor is magically effervescent as a fluky ’70s mom, splashing in puddles with her small children and bravely facing abandonment, money woes and illness. She’s the soul of the film, and her cracked smile wrecks you even when her dialogue suggests a dumber target audience. “I was never in the driver’s seat of my life,” she murmurs, one of her many huggable moments.
Unfortunately for us, Dern—only seen in flashback—isn’t the main character. Reese Witherspoon seizes onto the role of daughter Cheryl Strayed, spiritually broken and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail during the summer of 1995, with the talons of a raven looking for shiny objects below. Witherspoon is a seizer in general: Few actors can be as appealingly uptight, and when the part is Election or Legally Blonde (chipper strivers both), she’s perfect.
But Wild’s journeywoman, taken from Strayed’s memoir, feels wrong for her. Cheryl is a heroin addict, a cheater, a promiscuous waitress and a bit of a space-case. Witherspoon can’t be any of these things persuasively, but she can fume at unworkable camping equipment or fumble with her gigantic backpack like a slapstick pro. Her director, Dallas Buyers Club’s Jean-Marc Vallée, pushes her toward thoughtfulness, yet his atmospheric style runs counter to the obvious material. There are highly symbolic mountains to climb, highly symbolic streams to cross.
Wild works considerably better as a gender drama, as Cheryl comes into contact with different men on the trail, some helpful, others potentially predatory. Each time, her guard rises, and you can actually see a person trying to reprogram bad instincts. In other scenes, a hippyish scent of solidarity is evoked (Jerry Garcia’s August death is commemorated), but it’ll take more than a Bob Marley T-shirt to sell us on the authenticity of this particular hiker, epiphany-bound though she may be.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew