"I'm the girl who says yes instead of no"

“I’m the girl who says yes instead of no”

Isolation is a strange sensation. It can creep into our psyche despite being in a room with over one hundred people…or living in a city of millions. Something about our make-up or our situation leaves us thinking that nobody is there for us…nobody understands us. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it’s only our body’s chemistry misfiring. No matter what the reasoning, such loneliness is wickedly suffocating.

It’s almost enough to make one pack a bag and just start walking.

In 1994, Cheryl Strayed sets out to hike more than one thousand miles along the Pacific Coast Trail.

Up until now, Cheryl’s life has been something of a mess. Her home life growing up wasn’t glamorous, but it did the trick. While her father figures were pretty useless, her mother (Laura Dern)was loving almost to the point of doting. However, in her early 20’s Cheryl’s life really gets thrown for a loop when her mother gets very sick.

Her mother’s illness sends Cheryl down a self-destructive path of substance abuse and anonymous sex that seems to crater everything about her; her family, her marriage, her self-respect, and her “career”. All of this is learned and reflected-on in flashback as she walks the PCT.

Besides giving her time to re-assess things, her experience in the wild is all about getting a greater understanding of life. Cheryl gets harsh lessons in how quickly things can get dangerous, how some people might seem dodgy but can be trusted, and how much it can suck seeing other people happy when you are waist-deep in misery.

But Cheryl keeps putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually puts herself in the way of beauty…and clarity.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed

When one strikes off on their own, one is left with a lot of time to think. It doesn’t have to be the Pacific Crest Trail, it can just as easily be hours spent in a park  a book or a good pair of walking shoes instead of headphones or a cellphone. Try it sometime and see what sorts of ideas come to mind. For Cheryl, those thoughts are fixated on her past. It makes sense really, since on a journey like this one is likely to think about the road already travelled, or the miles left to walk…and focusing on what’s ahead is so much trickier. It requires imagination, ambition, hope, and as much as it pains me to admit this, those aren’t always the easiest virtues to employ. So WILD gives us very little about what Cheryl wants to do (besides getting to the end of the trail), and more about what she’s already done.

What Cheryl has done before now is fuck-up; early, often, and repeatedly. Sure, being the sort of person who says “yes” instead of “no” is inspiring in the right circumstances…but that quality has to go hand-in-hand with knowing when saying “yes” will be damaging. It’s those moments that Cheryl focuses on while she walks. Those moments she is trying to atone for. Those moments that we all have in our lives and wish we could do-over. What WILD underlines is that in some respects, she’s still having these moments. The difference is that when she encounters them out on the trail, they have the potential to turn on her in a hurry. So eventually, she is forced to give her actions more pause.

One wonders how much better we all would be giving these moments more pause in our lives?

One can see the change in Cheryl as Witherspoon’s walk winds on. First she begins by overcompensation – hauling a monster of a pack that is at least one-third overstuffed. It’s as though she knows what she’s doing is tough and dangerous, but doesn’t know why. After that, she reverts to her impulsive ways – flinging her very-much-needed hiking boot off the edge of a ravine in a fit of rage. She has hit a trigger but been taught a very good lesson with it; that sometimes when we react to our triggers impulsively, we do-so without the comfort of a safety net…and its a long way down.

By the time Witherspoon reaches the late-stages of her walk, there’s more serenity in her expression…more calculation. Her caution has evolved quite a great deal and she’s seemingly less impulsive, but most importantly she has finally learned from what her life up to now has dealt her. The film doesn’t put her into one extremely perilous situation, or give her one grand epiphany. It’s something that the film allows to happen naturally – giving us a more natural lesson along with it.

I am left with one question as I reflect back on WILD, and profess my enjoyment of it. How much more might have been extracted from Cheryl’s experience with a female screenwriter or female director? Far be it from me to doubt the creative talent or empathetic understanding of Nick Hornby and Jean-Marc Vallée . I just wonder if what keeps this film from finding a higher plateau isn’t a female substitute for one of them, if not a co-writer at the least. There are a few moments in Cheryl’s story that feel a little bit surface. Somehow I get the feeling that one less Y chromosome might have thrown this well-oiled-machine into a higher gear.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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