January 13, 2015

Film Review: Why You Need To See Wild

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I saw WILD a few weeks back at a press screening. I dragged myself there after a long day at work to Twentieth Century Fox screening rooms in Soho and knew I was going to be in for an evening of reflection, pensiveness and general feeling of “what-is-life”. You have to be in a certain mood to have a film throw up all sorts of big questions about happiness, depression, relationships, don’t you? But I was so up for it. I was tired, and to be honest, really really keen to have a good old cry. I grabbed a beer, hid underneath my big fur coat, and settled on down to be at one with Cheryl’s monologues and catipulted into the WILD.

The memoir of the same name was written by Cheryl and published in 2012 – with the trail itself happening during Cheryl’s early-20’s. The book was a total success, even Oprah selected it for her book club. I always prefer reading the book first, but the film really really brought it all to life. I could see everything I’d imagined in my head. The only downside of any film after you’ve read the book is that however brilliant the film is, they always leave bits out. They have no choice.

Having been a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed ever since a friend told me about her iconic Rumpus Column Dear Sugar (and now I’m hooked on the new podcast of the same name) I wasn’t sure how I would respond to seeing Reese Witherspoon, a famous recognised actress, play Cheryl. Because, how could she do that convincingly? Are they going to give us a blow-dried glamourised version of Cheryl, I wondered? Surely only Cheryl can be Cheryl. Not an A-list celeb.

But Witherspoon isn’t glamourised in this film. Aesthetically the similarities are uncanny. She acts it so very well. You really start to get an idea of just how hard that Pacific Crest Trail would have been. One thousand miles. You have the looking-through-your-hands moment of seeing her toenails fall off, the blisters, the bruises, the dirty clothes, the lack of food. The one night stands. The fear and loneliness of camping alone; the animals, the insects, the weather, the sweat. Oh, the sweat. You feel the shiver down your spine of the pain of walking that far, alone. Sleeping alone. A tent in the middle of a huge bit of land. And just one blonde lady and miles and miles and miles of nothingness surrounding her.

WILD isn’t all doom and gloom. Yes, we live through the flashbacks of Cheryl’s mum before she dies, her relationship that breaks down, her moments of self-hatred. But – there are fleeting moments of happiness. Whether that’s shown in her happy childhood memories or through the humour of how ridiculously heavy her bag is. She is like a stuck turtle on her back with her little legs in the air. After all, the PCT trail is what saves Cheryl. It’s a story of self-determination. A woman who REFUSES to crumble.

My emotions were heightened during the film because you remember it’s all real. This was and still is Cheryl’s life. A woman on the brink of depression and severe grief that the only answer is to pack a bag and hike out her feelings.

Is WILD a feminist movie? YES WILD IS A FEMINIST MOVIE. It’s important to remember just how “shocking” it was for a WOMAN to be out on her own. The men don’t carry her bags for her. She has her own money. She fights her own battles. The other hikers are all men, and she gets into sticky situations whether it’s sexist comments, or feeling down-right threatened by two men who are watching her get undressed in the middle of a vast bit of rural land. She finds another “female hiker” near the end of her journey and she is over the moon – it’s clear that this is not the norm because it’s true: it IS dangerous for a women to go backpacking on her own, but Cheryl doesn’t give a shit, she trucks on, and maintains a brave face. This is a woman on a mission.

There are a lot of complexities to Cheryl’s life. There was one thing that I questioned and didn’t quite “get”. Cheryl’s boyfriend Paul seemed, well, kind of perfect in the film. Maybe not so much in the book. Yet, there are scenes in the book where they end up getting divorced. They are really sad to leave each other. He saves her from a drug den. They call each other most nights. He cares, checks up on her. For someone so lonely, I kept wondering: why are you leaving him? He looks like he could make you happy. It niggled me. Why she couldn’t let him save her?

So, I emailed Cheryl. I felt so curious, so nosy, so intrigued by her decision:

Hi Cheryl
Firstly, I loved Wild. It’s one of my all time favourite memoirs, and seeing it on screen really brought it to life – you must be very proud of it!
I had a question which has stayed with me and I cannot shift the niggling feeling. I did think it was none of my business to ask you but as I felt so invested in your story I thought I might as well ask you, just in case.
Your ex-husband. He seems so nice and supportive and loyal in the book and in the film.. and well…sort of perfect. I know there were lots of complications in your life at this time and in your Dear Sugar podcast you said you were too young to be married. But how come? How come you split from him? You seemed so in love even on the day you officially divorced. This is really clear in the film, too. I hope you don’t mind me asking you this personal question, as it was obviously the right choice for you.
All the best,
Emma

5 minutes later, Cheryl emailed back. (I’m not publishing the email in case she wouldn’t want me to).

She told me why, though. She explained the reasons they separated, what she needed to gain from being part. She also explained that WILD doesn’t cover every last detail. It was interesting to hear that – the fact that yes, this is a memoir, but does it cover every last bit of her life and feelings? Of course not. It’s all true, it all happened; but it’s a story, and it includes and excludes bits of the story that are necessary.

It was absolutely amazing getting a response from Cheryl. It was like she’d taken the time to fill in a gap for me – just another reader. She didn’t have to reply, she certainly didn’t have to elaborate on her story. But this is the unique and genius thing about Cheryl Strayed (and something that is so clear in her Dear Sugar columns) – she connects with readers in a way that not all authors do. She answers questions and gives so much MORE to the people that read her work.

In short, I loved this film. I love the book, too. It reminds us, on a basic of level to be grateful for your life, and gives you the courage to truly believe you can overcome anything even the darkest deepest battles you face. Everyone has their own way of mending themselves – and Cheryl’s story proves that. But, it doesn’t look easy. Cheryl’s story shows that to rebuild yourself you sometimes have to lose everything in order to find yourself amongst the chaos.

My copy of WILD will remain of my bookshelf forever. It’s not a book that you read once.

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