Unremarkable films propped up by exceptional lead performances are as much a certainty of the autumnal season as yellow leaves and pumpkin patches. The one-two punch of Telluride and Toronto has served as the official launching pad for many such films over the years, and the Reese Witherspoon-starring Wild is the first to throw its hat in that dubious ring this go-round. Between this and his last award-courting effort, the McConaissance-completing Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée would appear to be chasing the "actor's director" status currently enjoyed by David O. Russell. It may well work, but that doesn't change the fact that Wild, which is based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling, Oprah-anointed memoir, is just as bogus as, well, Into the Wild.
Cheryl's vaguely spiritual journey of self-discovery is the stuff of a 10-minute NPR segment. With the assistance of an overused flashback structure, we learn that the death of her mother affected her so deeply that she lost all self-control regarding not doing heroin or sleeping with men who aren't her husband. This existential angst naturally prompted her to do the only logical thing in such a situation: hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Atom Egoyan circa 1994 might have been able to do something worthwhile with the material, what with its incremental reveal of past traumas that continually reframe the murkiness of the present. Vallée's take on it goes in circles and feels as meandering as Cheryl's walk through the elements. Wild only arrives anywhere in the most literal sense, and its many detours, while scenic, serve as little more than temporary diversions on a road to nowhere.
As Cheryl's deceased, glimpsed-in-flashbacks mother, Laura Dern both enhances and undermines the proceedings by reminding us of a more accomplished portrait of a woman on a semi-mystical quest to Understand It All: the canceled-too-soon Enlightened. Mike White's show likewise trafficked in narrated ruminations that occasionally toed the line between profundity and hokum, but it always registered as sincere. Whereas everything in Nick Hornby's script feels overly calculating, with whatever non-obvious truths Cheryl discovers on her months-long trek being lost on us; at one point she actually says, "I'm gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was." (She also chooses the last name Strayed for herself after the dissolution of her marriage and is followed around by a potentially imagined fox who doesn't even growl "Chaos reigns," about which the less said the better.)
The threat of sexual violence is frequent enough to be yet another element for Cheryl to brave, as well as one of the film's few understated aspects. Save for one dehydration scare, our heroine is never anywhere near death's door, making the men on the PCT her greatest danger. Witherspoon is especially game when she's truly alone and not sharing her inner monologue with us, which is all too rare: Wild is clamorous when it should be serene, and Hornby and Vallée are rarely content to let Cheryl's increasing connection to her surroundings speak for itself.
The Telluride Film Festival ran from August 29—September 1.