“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?” “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.” 

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy






Amanda Collins

There is one Strayed in the US phone book. One. Cheryl Strayed is the kind of woman who chooses her own surname when her marriage ends. She’s the kind of woman who leaves literary quotes in a trail journal along with her name. She’s the real-life subject of Reese Witherspoon’s film Wild, a movie so compelling, I had to go back and see it a second time.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl, who, in 1995, hiked the US Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) solo, covering over 1100miles (1770km) of desert and mountain terrain in the process. The film is based on Cheryl’s bestselling memoir.

I sat with two experienced hikers as I watched it for the first time, and together we appreciated (and sometimes chuckled at) the real challenges Strayed met – from a 65lb (29kg) backpack (water really does weigh so much!) to rattlesnakes. She faces heat, snow, thirst, fear, and pain – ‘Everything hurts, all the time’, she confesses in one of her occasional human encounters.

‘I was at the bottom point of my life’ commented Strayed recently. ‘I knew that I felt the best when I was in the wilderness, and I knew that solitude was what I needed’. She spent 94 days on the trail, mostly alone, yet this story isn’t told as a battle between a woman and the wild. In fact, much of the story is told in flashback and tiny snippets, as Strayed revisits the traumatic death of her mother, and the unravelling of her life as she succumbs to the intense grief of losing the woman who was her ‘centre’.

It’s not a typical story for a leading lady – not only is there plenty of sex and drugs in the flashbacks, there is, for the most part, no-one swooping in to rescue Strayed when things go awry. 

This film was produced by Reese Witherspoon’s and Bruna Papandrea’s production company, Pacific Standard, (which is fast garnering a reputation for producing stories about fascinating people – Gone Girl being another case in point). The script is written by Nick Hornby, and Cheryl Strayed was a strong presence in the creation of the film which spent only the shortest of times in pre-production.  Look out for ‘the real Cheryl’s’ daughter Bobbi as the younger Cheryl in the flashback sequences. As Bruna Papandrea commented, it was made with only a few voices involved in the production. But it’s easy to see that they were voices that worked well together. It can only be hoped that this is a new collaborative direction in filmmaking, as the creative energy certainly shows in the end result. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, it’s a film of glorious scenery, tantalising visual and audio glimpses, interwoven with sordid flashbacks.

Cheryl herself commented, on watching the movie, ‘’I never felt embarrassed ... even when I thought, ‘What was I thinking?’, I could recognise that we all make mistakes, and in so many ways.’’ This movie feels like a new direction in mainstream storytelling, one where forgiveness and compassion for the self becomes real, tangible and something to aspire to. I took my older teens to see it – and I am so pleased I did.

I wanted to say a word here about fear. There are plenty of moments where Cheryl experiences real fear in this film, and on reflection, I was surprised at how many of those moments were driven by humans rather than natural events. The respect she has for the wilderness is so evident in everything that she does, so that even in the most dire wild situation she encounters, we believe she will survive.

The soundtrack is a wonderful mishmash of the familiar and unfamiliar – song fragments bringing forth memories for Cheryl, interspersed with the sounds of the trail. There was barely a sound that didn’t add something to the story, from the drips into the pan at the cheap motel, to her mother's ‘hum’ haunting the air.

Reese is so gutsy in this film – no makeup, lugging that massive pack (affectionately nicknamed Monster) and taking on a role with far less dialogue than she is used to. But there is no ball named Wilson, nor is there a moment where we, the audience, wish she had taken a different turn. She is on an inspiring (if confronting) path from beginning to end, both story and performance-wise.

There is so much more to say about this story – so when you do go to see it, make sure you schedule in a cup of coffee with your film buddies afterwards. You’ll need it.

And let me know what you thought. 

Cheryl Strayed’s quotes come from these sources:

Cheryl, Reese and others discuss the film

Cheryl’s book

And the movie trailer

And Cheryl herself talking at TED in 2012