“Wild”: Cheryl Strayed’s Difficult But Therapeutic Journey

The plot in brief of Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir: Following a series of losses and struggles, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a solo three-month hike on the Pacific Coast Trail. Her mission statement: “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was” (Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com).

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice, explains a bit more:

This woman-vs.-nature battle is, of course, really a woman-vs.-herself conflict in disguise. Although she’s joined by the occasional fellow traveler, the Strayed of Wild is mostly alone, and deeply so, with the memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who died a few years earlier at age 45. In the time since, Strayed had done a marvelous job of messing up her life: She’s had a careless and dangerous fling with heroin, and she’s still feeling sorrow over a failed marriage.

Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter, reports on the frequent use of flashbacks, often brief ones, in Wild:

Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s supportive but skeptical friend and Thomas Sadoski as her conflicted husband make the most of their scenes, but it’s really Dern who tears at our emotions during her scenes with Witherspoon. Bobbi’s life journey, cut tragically short by illness, is as compelling as Cheryl’s. This is one of the most honest, complex portrayals of a mother-daughter relationship that we’ve seen in any recent movie, and the loss of her mother helps to explain Cheryl’s utter disorientation and her search for a major challenge to bring her back to life.

Strayed encounters people—mostly men–along her current journey as well. Justin Chang, Variety:

As an attractive woman in her 20s traveling alone, Cheryl is acutely aware that every strange man she encounters is a potential predator — whether it’s the kind farm worker (W. Earl Brown) who offers her a hot meal and shower, or the fellow traveler who turns out to be a very real threat. But Cheryl is neither a passive victim nor a saint, and in a film of quietly understated moments that often prove more impressive than the whole, few are as telling as the one where she casually spies on a male hiker (Kevin Rankin) emerging nude from a dip in the river — a rare example of the female gaze at work in American movies.

See the Wild trailer below:


Like many (including myself), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) is fully on board: “Witherspoon does the least acting of her career, and it works. Calmly yet restlessly, she brings to life Strayed’s longings, her states of grief and desire and her wary optimism.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, represents the other camp: “…(T)here’s not a moment in the film when we can forget that we’re watching Reese Witherspoon…”


Dana Stevens, Slate:

Cheryl’s a female protagonist of a kind we rarely see in the movies, someone who can be not just unlikable but at times unknowable, even to herself. This woman is a piece of work: disorganized, sailor-mouthed, given to self-destructive promiscuity and addictive behavior, but also curious, sardonic, and scary smart. After her divorce but before the hike, Cheryl rechristens herself, changing her birth surname, Nyland, to the evocative past-tense verb Strayed. Along the trail, she leaves quotes from the books she reads in a public logbook, co-signing them with her own name: ‘Emily Dickinson and Cheryl Strayed,’ ‘Adrienne Rich and Cheryl Strayed.’ Claiming co-authorship with the greats is a gesture of writerly hubris, sure, but it’s also an act of self-reinvention that somehow puts you on the side of this woman so determined to build up an interior self again, word by word.

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “What makes its heroine worth caring about — what makes her a rare and exciting presence in contemporary American film — is not that she’s tidy or sensible or even especially nice. It’s that she’s free.”

One thought on ““Wild”: Cheryl Strayed’s Difficult But Therapeutic Journey

  1. Thanks for the blog. I loved this movie, even though parts of it were tough to watch. It’s one of those movies that just sticks with you. Though I have never had the desire to thru-hike the PCT or the AT, I do seek solace on the trails – the silence and beauty and physical challenges of the outdoors is a good way to give my head a break from the real world.

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