Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Recent Watches: Wild (2014)

You’re all familiar with the concept of dueling movies, yes? Two films released around the same time, dealing with similar if not identical concepts? You know, the old “Deep Impact / Armageddon,” “Dante’s Peak / Volcano” situation. Last year, two movies about young women, both in need of self-discovery, walking long nature trails were released. For extra bonus points, both of these movies were based on memoirs. Since neither were big blockbusters, this rivalry exists mostly within in my own mind. Of the two releases, I put my money on “Tracks,” mostly because I have a crush on Mia Wasikowska. “Wild,” meanwhile, starred Reese Witherspoon, who is generally kind of bitchy. “Tracks” was good but, surprisingly, I actually enjoyed “Wild” more. For once, the Academy backed the right horse.

In the mid-nineties, Cheryl Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, from the ass end of California all the way up tp the Canadian border. Carrying an overstuffed pack on her back, and with too-small boots on her feet, Strayed made the trip to come to term with her troubles. The wounds of her mother’s death never healed. The fallout led Strayed down a path of heroine addiction and sexual promiscuity. These excesses cause her marriage to end suddenly. The memories haunt her during the long walk, even while she makes friends, learns to live in the wilderness, and learns even more about herself.

I know the self-discovery tinged plot sounds trite as hell. “Wild” dispenses with these concerns early on by establishing that the extended hike will not be easy or peaceful. In the first scene, Strayed sits down on a cliff side, pulls off her shoes, and examines her bloody, battered feet. While screaming, she tears the nail off her big toe. During Strayed’s journey, she experiences plenty of mishaps. She brings too much on the trip, leading to an absurdly heavy backpack. Just getting the damn thing on her back proves a difficult task. The weight leaves huge whelps on her torso. She brings the wrong oil for her stove, forcing her to eat cold mush for days. She awakens in her tent one night, feeling a creature inside. (It turns out to be a fuzzy caterpillar but her panic is still real.) She runs out of water, forcing her to drink from a filthy, stinking, muddy pond. Not long afterwards, she encounters a pair of creepy, leering rednecks. She stumbles while shitting in the woods, smeared with her own excrement. Characters frequently comment on her body odor, which almost gets her kicked out of a beauty supply store. She traverses across deserts, snow, rivers, rainstorms, and perilous rocky cliffs. Though full of lovely scenery, “Wild” never undersells how difficult the hike is and the toll it takes on Strayed’s mind and body.

Lots of movies explore their character’s past through flashbacks. “Wild” has an interesting approach to this. Strayed doesn’t remember everything in the order it happens. Instead, we get brief flashes of her wild years of drug abuse and sexual adventuring. (In a nice touch, the film never judges Strayed for her sexual escapades or drug addiction. These are merely things that happened to her. The honesty continues with the graphic depictions of both.) We’ll leap back to her attending college with her mother or ahead to her dissolved marriage. We get brief glimpses of her troubled childhood, learning more about it as the film goes. Small things remind her of something that happened, taking her back to that place. This is how memory actually works. “Wild” isn’t overly reliant on voice over narration. It, too, works more like how thoughts actually are, incomplete sentences and half-formed concepts. Even a dream sequence is realistic, a collection of half-remembered events and abstract images. Strayed is on her own a lot, alone with her thoughts and her memories. The film should be commended for how it handles this.

Reese Witherspoon has done her time in shitty rom-coms, earning some sort of reputation as America’s sweetheart. She even won an Oscar for playing a variation on that, as June Carter Cash in the mediocre biopic “Walk the Line.” Yet Witherspoon is best playing rougher characters, like the sociopathic overachiever Tracy Flick in “Election” or the white-trash tough girl Vanessa in “Freeway.” Cheryl Strayed is easily Witherspoon’s best performance in years. She’s funny, swearing at her misfortunes or interacting with other travelers. She plays down her movie star image with all the indignities she suffers over the story’s course. She probably won’t win but I’m now in the unlikely scenario of rooting Witherspoon to take home her second Academy Award.

The most important relationship Strayed has is with her mother. As played by Laura Dern, Bobbi Strayed seems like the best mom in the world. She’s unfailingly upbeat. She excels at turning a negative situation into a positive. Despite marrying an abusive drunk, she wouldn’t take those years back. When money is tight, because both Bobbi and her daughter are going to school, she becomes enthusiastic about learning. She’s always singing and being playful with her kids. When she finds out she has terminal cancer, she most wants to know if she can still ride horses. It would be easy to say that Dern plays an idealized, unrealistic character. Yet Bobbi is so lovable, such an irrepressible positive person, that the audience falls in love with her too. The film doesn’t soften the details of her death either. She suffers, withers away, and Cheryl is traumatized by the sight of her mother’s lifeless body.

Strayed’s faith in humanity is restored on her trip through the kindness of strangers, such as a friendly tractor driver, a shop owner who let her in during a thunder storm, or a bungalow full of goofy nature kids. The most touching encounter involves a little boy, his mother, and a llama. After a few probing questions, the child sings her a lovely song, leading Cheryl to a serene moment of clarity. For a moment like this to work, the scene has to be genuinely touching. “Wild” succeeds in that account. The final scene has Strayed giving a too-on-the-nose monologue, about the new chapter in her life the hike opened. For the most part, “Wild” earns the emotions it seeks. A powerful lead performance, skillfully constructed screenplay, balanced presentation, and real sense of heart makes “Wild” one of the real surprises of the this Oscar season. [9/10]

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