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‘Wild’ encourages us to look within

“Wild” (2014). Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, Mo McRae, Randy Schulman, Cliff De Young, Jason Newell, Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom. Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Screenplay: Nick Hornby. Book: Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Web site. Trailer.

How we became who we are sometimes baffles us. We go through life, not fully realizing who we are, what we do or why, a course that can be fraught with complications, misunderstandings and even obliviousness. Getting a handle on our intents and motivations can prove valuable for sorting out such matters, but how? Sometimes it may take something as simple as getting away from it all for a while, a tactic explored in the moving new fact-based drama, “Wild.”

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is sorely in need of getting her life together. With the untimely death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), Cheryl’s life falls apart. Overcome by grief and unclear how to cope with the loss of the woman she considered her best friend, she turns to drugs (including heroin) and a string of extramarital affairs in an attempt to ease her pain. Unfortunately, none of these solutions provides the answers or relief she seeks; in fact, all they do is leave her broke, unemployed and divorced from her adoring husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Even Cheryl’s longtime companions, like her childhood friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann), and her therapist (Randy Schulman) begin to lose faith in her ability to escape her cycle of self-destructive behavior, worried that she’s spiraling into an abyss from which she won’t emerge.

Somehow, though, Cheryl manages to find a way out – by deciding to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a destination that has always inexplicably captivated her. And so, despite a lack of hiking experience and not knowing what she’ll face, she sets off on her solo journey, beginning in southern California’s Mojave Desert and heading north up the coast.

To get her life together, hiker Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a solo journey of self-discovery along the Pacific Crest Trail, beginning in southern California’s Mojave Desert, in the moving new fact-based drama, “Wild.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The trip turns out to be nothing like what she expected, but it provides her with just what she needs – an opportunity to look inward to discover her true self and to heal a host of old wounds, some of which have to do with life events other than the passing of her mother and the fallout that came in its wake. To say more would reveal too much of Cheryl’s experiences and the insights that arose from them. Suffice it to say, however, that Cheryl’s trek brings her exactly what she needs at exactly the time she needs it. In fact, the journey itself becomes a metaphor for her own personal odyssey, one reflective of her inner being – the realm of her beliefs – the means by which she manifests her reality through the conscious creation process. It thus gives her an opportunity to address a range of issues, all the while providing an undeniable mirror of her true self. The experience proves quite profound; indeed, to call it cathartic and revelatory would be an understatement to be sure.

Embarking on an extended journey of some kind is often an effective means for getting away from it all to take stock of our lives, especially when traveling alone. The various stops along the way provide excellent opportunities to chart our personal growth and the evolution of our character, personal qualities that are almost certain to change over the course of the trek. Assessing the alterations and adjustments that emerge makes it possible to examine the beliefs that gave rise to them, shedding light on how and why they arose and, one would hope, how they’ve made our lives better.

Bobbi (Laura Dern), the mother and best friend of a hiker seeking to find herself, somehow manages to keep an optimistic outlook about life, despite its adversities, in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest offering, “Wild.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As noted above, such journeys also serve as metaphorical mirrors of our beliefs. In Cheryl’s case, for example, she begins her odyssey in the desert, a place of isolation, limited life-sustaining resources and myriad perils, conditions not unlike those that prevailed in her reality before she began her hike. From there she journeys to the snow-covered mountains of central and northern California, a cold, sometimes-unforgiving landscape that demands much of those who seek to ascend to their exalted heights, circumstances reflective of Cheryl’s quest to better herself and change her existence. And, as she rounds out her travels, Cheryl heads into the lush old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, a beautiful, abundantly verdant environment that fills her with a sense of renewal and vitality. That’s quite a trek – and on multiple levels to boot.

Of course, getting to that metaphysical promised land frequently takes work. In conscious creation terms, this primarily involves determining which manifesting beliefs need to be disposed of or rewritten. Intents that no longer serve us unduly weigh us down and make forward progress difficult, a circumstance that becomes symbolically apparent by the oversized bulky backpack Cheryl carries at her journey’s outset. It’s filled with all kinds of items she doesn’t need, which only slows her down and makes hiking needlessly burdensome. So it’s indeed fortuitous when she encounters someone who shows her how to lighten her load.

At one of the campsites along the trail, Cheryl meets Ed (Cliff De Young), one of the outpost’s full-time residents, who spends his days catering to the needs of passing hikers. He sorts through the items in her backpack, showing her what she doesn’t need (and, in Cheryl’s case, that proves to be considerable). Offloading such flotsam significantly unburdens her, an exercise that benefits her not only physically but that also symbolically reflects a useful – and necessary – shift in the palette of beliefs she needs to create her reality. Suddenly, Cheryl’s journey has become much easier, both literally and metaphorically.

When embarking on an undertaking as daunting as Cheryl’s, one might think that the foregoing should be obvious. But, given our heroine’s inexperience at hiking, it’s clear she’s not entirely sure what she needs for the trip. That, of course, could be resolved by simply asking others for assistance, but therein lies one of her personal challenges – developing a willingness to seek help when needed. These circumstances thus reflect one of the primary life lessons that Cheryl has drawn to herself to learn through this journey.

To overcome this issue, she must formulate suitable beliefs to materialize appropriate conditions for making that outcome possible. But, to do that, she must first determine why she has hesitated to embrace such intents. Perhaps it has something to do with her childhood, when her younger self (Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom) had to contend with an abusive father (Jason Newell) who frequently created chaos in the household. These disruptive circumstances may have led her to believe that her wishes would be disregarded, that it wasn’t even worth the effort to ask for what she wanted in the first place, because those desires would be ignored or squelched. This experience thus may have set in motion a belief pattern that carried forward into adulthood, one that kept her from seeking meaningful help from others – especially when she needed it most (just ask her friends, ex-husband and therapist).

A tearful separation marks the end of a seven-year marriage between Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, right) and her adoring husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski, left), in the new fact-based drama, “Wild.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

However, as conscious creators know, we’ll never receive what we seek until we make the effort to ask for it. To be able to do that, we must adopt beliefs that asking and receiving are acts that are not only acceptable but essential to our well-being. If this is something Cheryl has previously been unwilling to embrace, then perhaps the conditions of her hike have materialized to help her get over such hesitancy. When she sees that the Universe responds to her requests (especially when approached through its terrestrial emissaries), the act of asking for fulfillment of her needs suddenly doesn’t seem so imposing. In fact, once she gets a taste of it, she just might make it a habit going forward.

Being willing to make such essential requests shows maturity and responsibility, added benefits that come with learning this life lesson. These traits end up serving Cheryl well, too, since these qualities were noticeably absent in her response to her mother’s demise. Bobbi’s death at age 45 was undoubtedly a terrible tragedy, but engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior won’t bring back a lost loved one, either. Cheryl thus needed to develop these crucial traits at some point if she were to ever have a meaningful life as an adult. Again, the beliefs she used to create her journey thankfully provide the conditions necessary for the emergence of these attributes, and Cheryl fortunately has the wisdom to recognize the benefits these previously missing qualities afford her.

Perhaps most importantly, though, journeys like this help us to make peace with ourselves. While it may have been tempting for Cheryl to wallow in self-pity or beat herself up over her past transgressions, she ultimately comes to see that all of her experiences – for better or worse – have contributed to making her the person she has become, and, if she’s content with who she is, then even the “negative” incidents of her past were not in vain.

Cheryl comes to this conclusion during her trek while reflecting on memories of her mother, who always managed to remain optimistic, even in the face of the many difficulties she endured in life. For instance, during one of the film’s many flashback sequences, Cheryl asks Bobbi how she could maintain such an upbeat attitude in the wake of her abusive marriage. Bobbi replies that she wouldn’t have changed a thing, because, if she had, she wouldn’t have given birth to the beautiful daughter sitting before her. That realization was something Cheryl apparently had trouble embracing at the time Bobbi said it, but, now that Cheryl has created the time and space necessary to reconsider it, she can see the wisdom of her mother’s statement. It’s also an understanding she can apply to her own life – where it had been, where it is at that moment and where it’s likely to go moving forward.

“Wild” is an excellent film, far better than its marketing materials make it appear. Cheryl’s story is skillfully told, never revealing too much all at once, making for an experience that is as revelatory to the audience as it is to the protagonist. Viewers witness the unfolding of Cheryl’s odyssey in much the same way as she sees it for herself – quite a feat of movie making, to be sure. Credit the production’s great script and editing, not to mention the superb direction of filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, who has followed up his previous effort, “Dallas Buyers Club,” with an offering of equal magnitude and power. The picture is also gorgeously filmed and includes a great soundtrack featuring the music of Simon & Garfunkel, the Hollies, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Hiker Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) travels through the mountains of the Pacific Crest Trail as part of a journey to find herself in the moving new fact-based drama, “Wild.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Above all, though, the film is exceedingly well cast. It’s a terrific showcase for the considerable talent of Witherspoon, who has already garnered best actress nominations in the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Award competitions (with more likely to come). It’s also an excellent platform for Dern, who has turned in some of her best work in years (and deserves more recognition than she has received thus far). And then there’s the excellent cast of colorful supporting characters who make Cheryl’s journey interesting, including a wily desert farmer (W. Earl Brown), the freewheeling editor of a “hobo journal” (Mo McRae) and a sexy concert promoter (Michiel Huisman) who takes a liking to the wandering protagonist.

To find our way in the world, sometimes we need to get away from it, to explore our inner realms and take a good hard look at who we are, what made us that way and what we want to become. This often involves unshackling ourselves from the constraints of daily living, getting in touch with our core beliefs and feelings, that untamed “wild” side we all too frequently never make the effort to know. But making an effort to embark on such an unrestrained journey may prove to be just what we need to live a life of fulfillment and satisfaction. All we need do is put on our metaphysical hiking boots – and hit the trail.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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