It’s time for us to break down one of the most recently made pictures we’ve visited on Required Viewing: Wild. The Reese Witherspoon vehicle is a powerhouse of feels and beautiful scenery with a great soundtrack. And yet, Annemarie showed more reservation about this selection than almost anything else I’ve yet made her watch. Now, AM, I know you are at least a minor fan of Cheryl Strayed’s work as I borrowed her book Tiny Beautiful Things from you. So tell me, what had you less-than-enthused about Wild — and did you come around to it as fully as I promised you you would?
AM: First of all, Cheryl is a woman who intentionally or not, provides a great example of how the awful things in life can turn you into an advice goddess. I read a glowing review of Tiny Beautiful Things and since I read advice columns like they’re going out of style, I jumped in. I had no idea who Cheryl was when I read that book, and didn’t make the connection to Wild until after the film was released. I can’t say exactly why I didn’t jump on the Wild bandwagon initially. I adore Reese Witherspoon and obviously love Cheryl’s writing. Apparently the power of negative or lukewarm reviews from friends or the internets to sway me from seeing Wild was as strong as the power to read Tiny Beautiful Things.
You know how I always see things out of order? We probably should have viewed this before we watched the Gilmore Girls Netflix revival, but I generally got what Lorelai was going for on her own copycat quest.
I digress. You were asking if I’ve come around. I have, but I do have a specific qualm as it pertains to Wild and any other “find yourself” movie. Addiction and mistakes that happen because of addiction aren’t something that are neatly resolved in a 2-hour film. I get it, we’re seeing a condensed snapshot of an episode of someone’s life, and that’s where Wild does succeed for me, in showing that episode and exploring what it means. But you just know that Cheryl probably had years to go before she got back to being truly healthy and happy — and hiking for thousands of miles just doesn’t magically resolve your problems when you reach the end. That’s perhaps half a qualm at Hollywood’s tendency for happy endings (which I eat up too) and half a qualm at the idea that any dramatic action can change the course of your life and correct the wrongs you’ve committed. I can’t imagine the pain of losing your mother and the fallout from that trigger event, so also, my opinion and therefore qualm is highly unqualified.
Ok, Brooke, instead of me guessing, I want you to tell me why you love this movie, why you made me watch it and the probability that you’d ever hike the full PCT yourself?
B: To be fair, if I had known you hadn’t seen Wild, we would have watched it before the Gilmore Girls revival. I foolishly assumed that the whole Dear Sugar connection would be enough to get you to a theater. I should have known better, of course, but I digress too.
Anyway, one quick aside before I get into your questions. I first want to address your qualm, cause it’s a valid one. Yes, Wild is absolutely a slice of life, it’s a frame in which to condense the larger story. When we meet Cheryl, it’s already been a few years since she lost her mother, but she’s still very much grieving for her — and for the life she thought she’d have. We only get hints of this in the closing minutes of the film, but at the end of her PCT hike, Cheryl had almost no money, she spent the last of it on a soft serve cone and then just threw herself into finding *something* to sustain her. And as you know, in later years she would work with at risk youth as a counselor and in all manner of other jobs before she “made it” as a writer. We don’t see all of that, but we do get to see her turn the corner, and I think that’s always been closure enough for me. However, I will say, that the closing voiceover in the movie, which is almost directly from the book, does cover a lot of that ground in a succinct way — it’s not Six Feet Under comprehensive, but it is a powerful wrap up. And I’m aware as I write this that some people have been critical that the voiceover comes in so much more, let’s say aggressively, in this section with that sense of future Cheryl reflecting rather than the more in-the-moment thoughts that come previous. But I’m a sucker for a good voiceover, and I love this choice. #SorryNotSorry
These snippets of realization, in particular, are lovely:
“What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry? But if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if I wanted to sleep with every single one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? …. My life, like all lives, mysterious, irrevocable, sacred, so very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”
And that kind of gets into the heart of the questions you pose, AM. I love Wild because it is devastating and raw and real. I adore that Cheryl is flawed and dynamic, and she’s not afraid to put absolutely everything out there. We’ve often discussed that I love a movie that wrecks me. And this one does just that, in so many ways.
The one moment that always shatters my heart into a million pieces comes when Cheryl meets that sweet little boy and his grandma on the trail, and said little boy sings her that sweet song. The innocence and beauty in that moment is the perfect punctuation on the journey to that point — that little boy is the sum of everything Cheryl is trying to recapture. The agony and optimism of that moment is so beautiful. And that’s the emotion I get when I think of Wild.
Now, you ask would I ever hike the full PCT myself. HARD PASS on the desert portion. I think the more wooded areas are absolutely gorgeous. I could get on board for that, but no thanks to all the dust. I also think it would be a bad idea for someone as lacking in grace as I to undertake such a voyage solo. I’m not to proud to admit that I would probably break myself and need assistance at some point.
Same question back to you, AM, would you tackle the PCT? Also, talk to me about Cheryl, I know you dig her writing and advice work, now. But what of the Cheryl, we’re watching here? I know I haven’t been through anything like the trauma she has, but I find it very easy to empathize with her. What was your experience of the character?
AM: Brooke, you’ve sold me. My qualm is becoming less relevant to how I’m looking at this movie, because it’s about forgiveness, not reinvention. Cheryl isn’t trying to revamp her life, she’s trying forgive her mom for dying, and to forgive herself for the way she handled the aftermath. Flawed people might not be the most realistic to watch if you’re also not recovering from loss or drugs, but they’re certainly interesting, to say the least. I was perhaps less teary-eyed over the little boy, and more emotional when she finally reached the end of her quest, but you’re right, the optimism and innocence she saw in him was something she wanted to recapture in herself. That’s the point, and whether we really get to see the next chapter here is irrelevant.
Ok, I think we’ve managed to overthink (yet again) the larger theme of the movie, and now let’s move into the deets. I have run two marathons but I cannot conceive of wanting to hike up the entire Pacific coast, all 2,650 miles of it. I get that it’s out there, just waiting to be walked, but it’s ever so far. And unless you’re doing it to work through a complicated emotional issue (like Cheryl) or doing it because you can’t stand NOT doing it (like those over-achieving athletes), there’s really no reason to attempt it. The idea that you have to do something so big, so hard and so ridiculous is something I can only loosely relate to. However, I’d do a day hike (read: 2 hours or so, realistically) of the PCT, as you’re right, lots of the California coast and the Pacific Northwest are so pretty. Also, we share a klutz-like nature and I would also definitely fall or be eaten by a bear.
Let’s talk about Cheryl. I keep dancing around what I really think of her, specifically this time in her life, but I do admire her. She felt that she had to do this, had to keep getting up and trying and she accomplished it when others who were more inclined to succeed failed. So for that, and for the insight that she gleaned that helps her help others through trauma, I think she’s a person worthy of our empathy and our admiration. If she was able to forgive herself for the damage she wrought because she hiked a lot, that’s also something to be admired, because that’s not an easy task. She’s not a saint, but she is someone you’re rooting to succeed, which ultimately makes her a worthy heroine.
We haven’t yet discussed the ex-husband, Paul. What is your take on their relationship and the part he played in Cheryl’s story?
B: For someone we see only for a few moments, Paul is quite a present character in this picture. If you’ve only seen the movie, it’s not exactly clear when Cheryl and Paul got married, or how long they were together, and it really doesn’t matter. But it’s clear that they were young and in love, and he did his best to be there for her, but he wasn’t what she needed (only her mom could have filled those shoes). I think it’s fascinating that we see Paul as both a victim (the man she cheated on many times) and an antagonistic hero (the shining knight who pulled her out of a heroin haze when that was the last thing she wanted). There’s a real clarity of vision to the way he’s presented by the movie, which is ultimately Cheryl’s lens, so I respect that awareness from her a great deal. I also like the acknowledgment that she loves Paul, even though he can’t be what she needs and even though she can’t be with him anymore. There’s not a clean break. And he doesn’t think so either. Their interactions are stilted and raw, but there’s love underneath the animosity.
I’m always struck by the scene after Cheryl’s night of love with Daario Naharis — comments on that interlude please — where she speaks about how she’s written Paul’s name on every beach she’s visited him, but she did it for the last time that day. I’m not even sure why, but that’s always struck me as particularly beautiful. In addition to your thoughts on Daario, I want to hear what you think of some of the other people Cheryl meets on the road, I have my favorites, and I’ll share, but I want to hear yours. And finally, let’s talk about the soundtrack to this movie. I have thoughts, but again, you first.
AM: I am glad there’s a reason I was confused about the details of the Paul & Cheryl union — they’re deliberately not there. I interpreted their relationship similarly, as one of young love that simply couldn’t stand up to Cheryl’s crushing grief. I also love that scene where she tells him she’s not writing his name on beaches anymore. I think that was meant to be the final closure for her, and her message to him that she would be finally moving on from him, wouldn’t be calling anymore and they could safely separate. I’m sure by the time Cheryl took to the PCT that her and Paul’s relationship was him worrying about her whereabouts and activities more than anything, so I love that she’s trying to give him permission to let her go as much as she’s letting him go. A divorce tattoo is probably a bit much, but people deal with emotions in different ways, I suppose.
Daario was a perfect bearded present that Cheryl gave herself as reward for her progress. She gets pretty, she has some drinks and she sets herself up with a handsome one-night stand. She’s done this so many times in the past, but this time was different, because she was accepting who she was and why she was doing the things she was doing. And also, she had to put her last condom to use! Aside from him and the would-be murderer who rescues her and it turns out he’s a perfectly nice man with a perfectly nice wife, I loved the college kids who tell her she’s the Queen of the PCT. I particularly love that she didn’t sleep with any of them. She didn’t need to. Having their admiration meant more to her than sex, and that’s a sign of growth if nothing else.
I was actually struck by the silence of this film, not the music. There’s long stretches where it’s just Cheryl, her breathing and her voiceover, which puts us right in her head for much of the movie. Given the setting, we probably should have heard more Nirvana, but I do appreciate the melancholy additions of Simon & Garfunkel. Brooke’s about to show me up with her musical analysis, watch.
B: I am actually about to agree with you! The reason I find what music there is so striking is because it’s so sparse. I particularly love how all of the music triggers memories and moments for Cheryl, you know I am a great believer of the power of culture in the story of anyone’s life, so to hear Cheryl singing “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail,” while walking and reminiscing works incredibly well for me. Also, the Beck track that features in this movie is a brilliant tune of a lovely album, so I appreciate that quite a lot as well. It is true that Nirvana would have been all over at this time, but since Cheryl is kind of removed from her present, I’m not mad about the deeper cuts.
The would-be murderer is my favorite! I love how aggressively Reese commits to eating in that scene. I’ve had moments where I felt that hungry before and something about comforting down home cooking seems so wonderful in that moment. But I also really love the dialogue in that section of the movie. I love how the wife jokes about running away with Cheryl and the husband laughs that the world would be better if everyone thought by him. Those two are like a living, breathing hug — and the husband’s reassurance is so sweet. Cheryl hasn’t seen kindness like that in a while, and it strikes me as just what she needs to keep this promise to herself.
As ever, we’ve gone on at no insignificant length here. In closing, I have two more questions for you. What’s your take on Monster? And what’s your favorite quote from the trail books? For the record, mine is, “If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.”
A: Ha! I had forgotten that Cheryl’s backpack was named Monster, which is the most appropriate name for a pack that weighed roughly double what she weighed. I’m not a light packer, but then again I never long-distance hike, so I would follow Ed at Kennedy Meadows’ lead and lighten it up a bit. I am a fan of all of the quotes, and I dearly love the “— Emily Dickinson (And Cheryl Strayed)” attribution next to each. I’m particularly fond of the Joni Mitchell quote, mostly because I love the word “wilderland,” so I shall end this wandering post about a wandering woman with this:
“Fear is the wilderland, stepping stones or sinking sand.”
Next time we’re sticking in my world, with another portrait of a young woman facing a challenge … albeit in a castle and with a crown. Thanks for giving us an excuse for a bonus installment, Afternoon Tea at the Alamo Drafthouse!