If you were going off the trailers alone, your first instinct might be to say that Wild is a knock-off, female version of Into the Wild. You could be forgiven for thinking that; after all, both movies are based on true stories of someone going on an extremely emotional, physical and spiritual journey. Both movies are told in a non-linear fashion, so as to link past events with new experiences. Heck, both movies feature “wild” in their titles! But I find there is one key difference between the two that makes Wild the better film.
And that difference is that the main character is actually likable.
It’s no secret that I don’t care for Into the Wild. In many ways, I felt like it was a tedious experiment in Oscar Bait. I’m not terribly familiar with Christopher McCandless’ real life, but the character as presented in Sean Penn’s movie always struck me as self absorbed, someone out to prove something that didn’t need to be proved. Someone so incredibly stubborn, they only realized they needed others in their lives as they lay dying alone. Tragic yes, but not a relatable character for most.
Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name, in which she documents how she hiked the PCT for months after her mother died of cancer and she found herself spiraling out of control in the wake of it all. The hike was her way to force herself to change, by going out of her element and pushing herself to her limits. She’s determined to make her goal despite many setbacks and the constant fear of being raped or assaulted. She’s not rejecting society so much as trying to find her way back in it. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl here and I must say, it’s a fantastic performance from her and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she’s nominated for several awards next year.
As good as Reese is, however, it’s Laura Dern who steals the show as Cheryl’s mom. She is the heart of this film and you can feel (and sometimes see) her character resonate throughout every scene, despite only appearing briefly in flashbacks. Even when faced with certain death, she is more concerned for the well being of others and maintains a positive spirit that’s more than just a facade, more than just allowing herself to be naive. She’s strong, like her daughter.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée garnered some much deserved critical acclaim last year for Dallas Buyers Club and he brings that same level of gritty, stripped down realism here. It works much to the film’s favor and is very different from the approach that Sean Penn took.
By my standard, Wild is so much more than Into the Wild and succeeds in nearly every way I thought that filmed failed, but especially with compelling, relatable characters. I also found it interesting that it deals with issues that a man would never have to face if they chose to go on a journey like this, namely other men choosing to see them as objects.
Don’t write it off as knock-off. It’s so much more than that.