The film opens at the beginning of Strayed’s 1,100-mile trip, then occasionally dips into in scenes from her past. At first, they’re brief fragments, as if Strayed’s waving the memories off the screen, before allowing them to settle more fully later on. The death of her mother, Bobbi, weighs heavily throughout—and Dern is perfect casting for a challenging role, bringing dimension to a figure Strayed clearly regards as essentially magical. She dances, dispenses charming aphorisms, and cheerfully forgives the younger Strayed’s moments of arrogance and callousness.
It doesn’t come across as grating or cheesy that Bobbi’s flawless, both since we’re recalling her as Strayed’s memory of the recently departed, and because Dern still manages to make her seem haunted by the demons of her past even as she sashays around a cramped kitchen with a glowing smile. We also glimpse far darker portions of the life Strayed is trying to shed—fleeing an abusive father as a child, slipping into drug use and sex with random strangers after Bobbi’s death, eventually losing her nice-seeming husband (Thomas Sadoski) as a result. Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby’s biggest achievement is that none of these memories feel forced into the narrative—they sprinkle them around, fragmented and repetitive, early on, and expand on them later as Strayed goes deeper into the wilderness.
And what wilderness! Cinematographer Yves Belangér captures the varied landscapes of the Pacific Crest—desert, mountains, deep snow, thick forest—with necessary starkness. Wild never feels like a pretty postcard movie, since the trail has to represent something of an enemy to Strayed throughout, a challenge to be overridden and conquered. At one point, she comes to a daunting-looking pile of rocks, and methodically gets her giant hiking pack over it before maneuvering past it herself. It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, and a great example of the way that Wild builds emotional momentum. Strayed’s journey is a series of small victories that add up to something momentous. Hundreds hike through the PCT every year, but when Strayed gets to a planned milestone near the end of the film, she might as well be walking on the moon.
Though it’s set in 1994, Wild also does a tremendous job wrestling with an issue that feels more pressing than ever. Strayed is a woman endeavoring into long-distance hiking, a sphere utterly dominated by men, so much so that other hikers recognize her on sight simply because she’s the only woman writing in the trail logs. Throughout her journey, Strayed runs into skepticism, both audible and subtle. The film explores both the genuine threat Strayed could feel encountering aggressive men along the way, and the quieter, niggling sexism of a park ranger who wants to nab a drink alone with her or a friendly but patronizing farmer who can’t believe she’d attempt such a daunting trip without a man alongside her.