"Denying her wounds came from the same source as her power": a review of Wild
Wild conveys well the quirky things that can happen to you while camping. Every man Cheryl meets seems like he could be a potential rapist; one journalist on the highway treats her as a hobo whose lifestyle might be fodder for The Hobo News (as much as she denies it). She meets a fox, a llama, frogs who jump up on her sleeping bag, a strangely polite singing child, and some Oregon cows. She learns of the importance of properly fitting hiking boots in the midst of providing REI with dream product placement. Also, Cheryl gives the movie a literary kick whenever she writes a quote from Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, or Robert Frost on the trail register. For example, she writes "If your Nerve deny you - Go above your Nerve" by Dickinson.
I have much respect for Reese Witherspoon's talents as an actress (especially in Election (1999)). Here her character displays a monastic desire to atone for her various sins (aside from Cheryl's, one could also throw in Witherspoon's decision to star in This Means War (2012)). Instead of wearing a hair shirt in the wilderness, Cheryl allows her heavy pack to scrape up her body, and she suffers through days of eating cold mush when she can't get her propane stove to work. Still, I can't help finding something programmatic in the way that these bestselling memoirs, these packages of uplift demand that the protagonist reach the very lowest of the low (heroin stupor, sleeping with the dealer in a hovel, disposing of her mother's horse, etc.), before she can redeem herself with the picturesque Three Sisters mountain as a backdrop. This memoir convention necessarily leads to depictions of extremely unethical behavior because where's the interest in only partially going wrong when the reader can vicariously enjoy the memoirist's total debasement and self-loathing?
Also, I was not pleased with Laura Dern's portrayal of Cheryl's flaky, life-affirming earth mother Bobbi, something of a type who fights to affirm her children (Cheryl and her brother Leif) in the face of an abusive alcoholic husband, cancer, and so on. When Cheryl confronts her mother's relentless positivity given their extreme poverty, Bobbi replies "We're rich in love." At another point, Cheryl shares with a fellow camper this quote from her mother: "There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty." In the midst of these cheesy affirmations, I could only think of Dern's excellent work in the decidedly bleaker movies of David Lynch.
[To all of this, my wife replies . . . ] There's a reason why the mother is portrayed this way, in spite your unflinchingly patriarchal desire to demean her. The movie is based on a memoir. Whenever we choose to remember our positive influences who are no longer with us, we over-positivize them. Strayed's mother becomes Christ-like after her death because she has to be. The mother becomes the religion that Cheryl adopts only after losing her. If the mother stayed alive, she would be filled with idiosyncrasies and problems. You deify people who have left you, because you can. Cheryl's whole goal, the whole point of the movie is that she wants to become the daughter that her mother had raised. She needed the wilderness as a place to grieve the loss of her mother, and allow her memories of her mother to bring her joy. Her mother is always going to be larger than life, and be probably not very cinematic as a result. Laura Dern can't possible play somebody that grand. It's not Dern's fault. It's not the memoir's fault. It's the nature of death and grief.
As Thoreau wrote [I reply], "In wildness is the preservation of the world."