This year's Closing Night selection at the Philadelphia Film Festival was Jean-Marc Vallee's latest effort, Wild. Vallee has quickly climbed the ranks as a premier filmmaker thanks to the overwhelming success of last year's Dallas Buyers Club, which went on to collect 3 Academy Awards during its memorable run. While Wild clearly doesn't have the same impact and staying-power as his previous work, Vallee once again delivers a soulful true story that stands tall enough on its own.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a divorcee whose life begins to spiral out of control following the loss of her best friend and mother (played by Laura Dern). Unable to regain her composure, Cheryl embarks on an 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail in order to confront her demons and correct her path. Yet, nothing can prepared her for the mental and physical anguish she's set to endure along the way.
It's become abundantly clear that Jean-Marc Vallee has a unique way of drawing the best possible performances out of his actors. After leading both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to their first Oscars, Vallee evokes yet another transcending performance from his leading star, Reese Witherspoon. And although she's already earned a Best Actress statue with 2005's Walk the Line, Witherspoon has never been better than she is right now, which should be enough to land her in Oscar contention once again. Wild is brilliantly acted on all accounts and supporting star Laura Dern is deserving of a mention as well. While Dern's chances at seeing some awards season recognition seem less likely, you can no longer count out a big-time performance in a Vallee picture. And speaking of the director, praises are due for the humble manor in which he approaches the subject matter. While Vallee has demonstrated that he's capable of tackling difficult directorial feats, he refuses to stroke his ego with flashy filming techniques and allows his talented cast to bring this tender true story to life.
Much like the film's lead character, Cheryl Strayed, Wild is riddled with faults as well. For a film dead-set on telling a heart-breaking story of a woman who falls into the darkest depths of despair and commits various unspeakable acts, Vallee only scratches the surface of these atrocities. Cheryl is clearly broken, but to make her pilgrimage of self-worth more effective the film would have been better suited addressing her origins in a more detailed way than the occasional flashback. Furthermore, there are a few artificial moments in Wild where the film is desperate to draw pity and sadness from the viewer rather than working hard enough to earn such feelings.
The fall and winter months always become infested with superbly acted roles in middling movies. While I feel Wild is a clear step above such a label, it certainly isn't the Oscar-level film many were hoping. Through Vallee's direction, Witherspoon gives a gutsy and authentic performance that allows this powerful story to push along through every step of her journey.