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TIFF: Wild, Or How Witherspoon Got Her Groove Back

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto. Running on fumes... 

Color me surprised that my favorite among the consensus Best Picture hopeful Oscar launches from festival season (the others being Foxcatcher, Imitation Game and Theory of Everything... though I have yet to see Birdman which didn't play here) is Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild, an adaptation of the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. How could a months long solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail be so cinematic? The answer is in its smart mosaic, visual and aural, as Reese hikes through expansive physical and intimate mental terrain. The present and the past converse and overlap consistently in the sound design like fragments of song sung, hummed or played as if remembered - who is singing? and snippets of dialogue the same evocative way. 

There's not much to say about the plot, the film's most recent kin being Into the Wild though Wild is the stronger film. Reese Witherspoon reminds us why we were all so excited about her in the first place with effortless star magnetism. She doesn't turn on any megawatt charm or do anything strenuous at all with it other than trust that innate cinematic charisma to walk with her on the trail as film-elevating protective gear. That's gear Cheryl needs because those boots aren't made for walking and good god she's got a lot of baggage, both literal (her comically large backpack) and metaphoric, having let herself completely spiral towards a personal abyss with the death of her mother.


Laura Dern, forgiving and effortfully positive, as the best mothers-who've-had-it-rough can be for their children, provides a beautifully warm counterpart to Reese's often tetchy and nervous amateur hiker who is still very pissed at herself for the ruins of her life; the look Reese gives herself in the occasional mirror tells you quite a lot about how far she still has to go to be at peace with herself.

Wild might not be the type of film that would be easy to rewatch and it isn't a thrill-in-minute (though its range of emotions surprises from quite funny to heart-aching helped a lot by tiny cameos from actors she meets along the way) but as an in-the-moment meditation, peering in on one woman's difficult walk back towards her better self, it's a memorable and satisfying experience. Join the "Reeseurgence", people (thanks, Katey). You'll be pleasantly surprised. 

Full disclosure: I was in a very good mood when I saw this movie since the reception beforehand was a good time and THE FACE herself, Laura Dern, was just as friendly as the last time I met her (with her superfan Glenn at an event for her father's Oscar run last year).

On the other hand I've been in a good mood all week - I've seen only a few things that I didn't like and loving this festival even more than usual - so perhaps chatting with the Dern (who is in a lot more of this movie than I was expecting) didn't effect my judgment at all. Just thought I'd mention it because we all know that time, place, mood, and circumstance effect how much we enjoy everything. And I seem to be enjoying (almost) everything, damnit! [*cough* more on Miss Julie soon).  Premieres and event screenings always have a heightened energy to them and the crowd was notably generous to fellow Canadian and still rising director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, C.R.A.Z.Y.). He introduced the movie's team and Reese, on stage for a split second, waved like a bubbly Southern beauty queen in a short girly half sparkly black dress as they walked off the stage and the film began 45 minutes after its scheduled screening time. Afterwards, Reese & team stood from a spotlit balcony for their standing ovation but no Q&A.

I think that was the right choice. One of Wild's greatest attributes is its confidence in its own introspective arc. It ends so beautifully in a smartly low key cool down at the end of Cheryl's soul searching hike, that the mundanities of some Q & A sessions might have dulled its lingering natural spell. B+

Also at TIFF
A Little ChaosThe New GirlfriendThe Gate, Cub, The Farewell Party and Behavior
The Theory of Everything and Imitation GameFoxcatcher and Song of the Sea
The Last Five Years Wild Tales and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Force Majeure, Life in a Fishbowl and Out of Nature, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,
Charlie's Country  and Mommy

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Reader Comments (22)

I can't wait until your obligatory Julianne Moore post.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Great review, Nat. Thanks! Do you think Laura Dern has a good shot at being nominated as Supporting actress? I would love to see her among the nominees again.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJones

I'm glad you liked it. I liked the trailer so much that I downloaded Beck's new album so I could replay the song in the trailer, and I bought Strayed's book, and I almost never read books that form the basis for movies I want to see (I haven't read it yet, but the album is really good).

Also, I have to give Reese credit for buying the rights to books she thinks would be good properties for her and producing them (she's a producer on Gone Girl, too, even though it didn't work out as a starring vehicle). So many actors do this, while actresses just seem to accept what's handed to them. It's good she realized her career was headed nowhere and became proactive.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Wait, wait, are you saying that Jean-Marc Vallee did that movie C.R.A.Z.Y? That brilliant gay themed (sorta) coming of age movie set in Quebec that may or may not have had Indian people in it? I thought that movie was super terrific. I had no idea he was the guy that did Dallas Buyer's Club (which I have not seen).

I am thrilled with this review. I like Reese well enough I suppose, and Laura Dern too, but the main reason I'm excited is that I really liked the book and was wary about its adaptation. There was a lot going on in Cheryl's head and heart when she made the hike, so I can see how they could easily go back and forth in time, even more so than, say, 127 Hours, but I would think it needs just the right touch to pull it off.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Oh shut up Hayden. Give this spot to Reese. Reesesurgence? I'm on board!

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLyndee

ok that review gave me chills. Who knew i still had traces of excitement for Reese? Can't wait.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterG.ShaQ

So glad she got her mojo back,what about her other blind sidey project.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Yes! I so hoped that the Reese of the late 90s/early 00s would eventually resurface, so your review gives me hope.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Since my comment wasn't satisfactorily pro-Reese, I'll add that the beautiful thing about this moment in her career is that she seems to be doing everything right. Armchair actressexuals love to dole out advice to ladies whose careers is struggling, but as a tactician, Reese has made unimpeachable choices in the last couple of years. If the acclaim she deserves doesn't come of this, no one can blame her or her agent.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Could Dern win? Please?

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Nathan, lovely review!! Reese and Laura should make for a good combo. I'm delighted for the Reeseurgence.

Hmmm...could Beck qualify for Best Song? That would be way cool.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I'm so ready to love Reese in a movie again. I like her so much and when she's on she's really great. Looking forward to this, though I have to say that "Two-Time Academy Award Winner Reese Witherspoon" feels strange. But, I'm reserving judgment and like I said, I'm looking forward to it.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterThe Pretentious Know it All

Team Chastain.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

/3rtful - what does Chastain have to do with this post? Or Reese?

brookesboy - oh, i wasnt aware he did a song

mark - i didn't see "The Good Lie" but from what i'm hearing she's not in as much of the movie as you'd expect. Joe Reid liked it though.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

You know, Reese Witherspoon made the adjustment from young actress to movie star superby, but I have to admit movie star Reese is less interesting to me. Even her oscar winning performance struck me as rather facile. Looking forward to this movie because it seems like there is a lot more there, there, though.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I'm pleased that Reese is back in fine form, and it's good to see that her choices are being vindicated. I'm also delighted that Jean-Marc Vallee is proving himself once again to be a very capable director - he seems extremely good at getting fine performances from a variety of actors.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Nathaniel: Best Actress 2014

September 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

You say Into The Wild is Wild's most recent kin.
Wouldn't that be Tracks? That was a terrific movie with a brilliant lead performance (Mia Wasikowska)...

September 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

After Legally Blonde (and I thought she was wonderful), I think Reese got stuck with only being offered similar roles. Even the Oscar didn't break the idea that light comedy was all she could do or all anyone wanted her to do. I remember how fantastic she was in Freeway and then Election but it seemed no one could remember the depth she brought to those roles after LB. No one wanted her to stretch (Importance or Vanity Fair). They might not have been the best films, but at least she was trying. It's smart to find her own vehicles and at least this time, it seems to be working in her favor. The problem with finding your own projects is that you have to be objective because it can so easily go against you (Alex Cross?).

September 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I'm glad Reese delivers, Nathaniel. She truly has a one-of-a-king magnetism. I'm happy that she makes it shine here. It was very important - and the thing I thought was missing from 127 Hours, for example. Franco was very competent - but there's no star charisma there. It makes me even more excited for the next project she's producing, alongside Nicole Kidman. I hope they work well together.

And Laura Dern is just great - I hope she gets the plum role she deserves post-Enlightened. That show showed the one is one of the greatest of her generation - she just doesn't have the filmography to show it. It's about time someone gives her another 'Wild at Heart' or 'Inland Empire'.

Jean-Marc Vallée needs to convince me that his exuberance of style from C.R.A.Z.Y. is still there. In this and Dallas Buyers Club, all I keep hearing is 'he's great with actors'. Not that that's not OK, mind you (David O. Russell is proof of that) but that movie was so cool I hope he can mash the two together in the near future.

September 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Ulrich - maybe so but it never came out in America. I haven't seen it.

September 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Really enjoyed watching this movie. Reese Witherspoon delivers a great performance Cheryl Strayed. She has grown so much over the years and it really shows in this movie. Laura Dern also played fantastic in this movie and the overall experience is just great. The movie is based on a true story and even though I have not read the book, the story line is very compelling and well implemented.

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