Although I've enjoyed a few "I did this thing for a year and look at the life lessons I've learned!" books, I'm still weary of the genre. It doesn't matter if the experiences the books are documenting are interesting - what would it look like if you followed every rule in the Bible literally? - or if they are exotic - I went to Spain and India and it was life changing! - because either way, they tend to wrap up their narratives with self-help platitudes. In my opinion an alluring hook is rendered worthless the instant it's revealed as a Trojan Horse that was meant to smuggle smugness into my life.
That's why I was skeptical going into Wild, a new movie which is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed of the same name. The premise will sound familiar to anyone who keeps up with the bestseller lists: a woman finds herself at a crossroads, decides to commit herself to doing an arduous task (in this case hiking a trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada), beats backs her demons, then writes a memoir about her experiences. That premise lead me to expect a movie that might be interesting up until the moment where Big Lessons were learned, at which point it would go to shit.
Fortunately, that's not what I actually got. Wild feels less like a self help book and more like a good Johnny Cash album. Cash's songs tended to focus on Saturday night or Sunday morning - on sinning and on repenting. I suppose that dichotomy exists in a lot of music, but Cash tended to give equal time to both sides in a way that other singers don't. He was not a pure pop artist, nor was he a Gospel singer - he was somewhere in the middle, fusing salvation and melancholy at every turn. Wild has a similar approach, constantly intercutting between being lost and being found, rather than beginning at one and ending at the other.
(Sidenote: I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Strayed curses the Lord out several times in this movie, which the very Christian Cash would never do. But even though the two aren't exactly the same, I still think they have some ground in common.)
Before Strayed set off on her journey she had some serious issues: her mother's death, her divorce, even a heroin habit. What sets her tale apart from other recovery stories is that she doesn't completely turn her back on those experiences once she gets beyond them. There's a flashback scene where her mother explains that she doesn't regret marrying an abusive alcoholic because while that marriage gave her a lot of heartache it also gave her two beautiful children. That scene is the key for the whole movie: Strayed regrets her self destructive days on some level, but she also accepts that they are always going to be part of her past - that now they are neither good nor bad, just fact. Her unapologetic tone really makes this movie much different in practice than it seems like it would be on paper.
Strayed is a challenging character, and she's an interesting fit for Reese Witherspoon, who plays her. Witherspoon has made so many movies that required little more of her than Southern charm and a bubbly attitude that it's easy to forget how steely she can be when she wants to be. There's a lot of anger in Strayed's story, as well as flashbacks to degenerate behavior, and naturally there's a lot of scenes of her walking by herself - but not a lot of stuff you'd see in a rom-com. It can be a little shocking to see Witherspoon shooting up or having anonymous sex in alleyways, but then again, before she was Legally Blonde, she had Cruel Intentions - she hasn't always been a perfect sweetheart. Still, once you get over the oddness of seeing Witherspoon outside of her comfort zone, she does a good job; she certainly left it all on the table in this one.
Ultimately what makes Wild work is that it doesn't devolve into self-help. The idea behind self-help is "I did all of this work, now I've uncovered the secret and I'm going to give it to you." Strayed did the work and she's recounting it in detail - but she doesn't imply that you could get fixed in the same way, especially if you weren't willing to put in the same amount of work. Because the movie doesn't end on a false promise, it doesn't wash away the struggles that took place along the way. It's candor is refreshing, particularly given how easily it could have surrendered to platitudes. I respected Wild a lot more than I expected to.
Although I must say: I didn't respect it so much that the idea of Wild 2: Electric Boogaloo doesn't scare me. Hollywood, if you make a sequel where Strayed goes to India and stays kosher for a year you can probably count me out.