There has long been a struggle in cinema in how to properly and effectively depict internalizations. The challenge of adapting the nebulous and often singularly personal internal developments of a person into a visual medium driven by the adage, "show, don't tell" is one that filmmakers almost sadomasochistically attempt to tackle time and time again to varying levels of success for various reasons. Some stories, like Aron Ralston's "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" adapted into Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, successfully navigate this quagmire thanks to a willingness to break conventions of what it means it "show."
And then there are stories like Cheryl Strayed's "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" adapted into Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild.
Wild follows Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she attempts to hike the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave in California to the Oregon-Washington state border without any prior hiking experience. This ambitious endeavor comes at the heels of a series of self-sabotaging habits – heroin addiction, infidelity, divorce – incited by the untimely death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), the proclaimed love of Cheryl's life and guiding light. Lost in life, directionless and tired of the downward spiral that led to her divorce from loving husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), Cheryl embarks on the hike in an effort to seemingly laboriously atone for her past transgressions and achieve the personal and spiritual profundity that can only be achieved from weeks spent amongst solitary communion with the larger creation.
Wild features plenty of spectacular views of sweeping American vistas and a clear path of growth for its protagonist, but it's the approach to overcoming the challenges of the whole "solitary communion" aspect of the film that gets it mired in convention and holds it back from being anything worth remembering outside of a solitary performance from its lead.
Wild wants you to know that Bobbi was an important influence on Cheryl's life and it wants you to never, ever, ever forget it. The film's primary method of conveying importance and resonance is through flashbacks to past events and it returns to this blunt object at every chance it gets, repeatedly beating us over the head with reminders that both A) Bobbi was a source of stability and inspiration for Cheryl and that B) Cheryl took that source for granted. Occasionally, these flashbacks are warranted; an experience along the treacherous PCT will transport Cheryl back to a place in which timely wisdom or motherly strength is applicable. Mostly though, these scenes just serve to breakup the mundanity of a meandering narrative that is a repetitive succession of "challenge presented, tension results, challenge overcome" moments.
These moments might help engage us as viewers more if not for the fact that none of the challenges are particularly challenging. A rattlesnake, for instance, almost attacks Cheryl. Giant rocks almost slow Cheryl down. A redneck hunter almost comes close to maybe physically assaulting her. There is nothing thrilling or engaging about a series of "almosts" and while Wild's attention is admittedly not supposed to be on the perils of Cheryl's journey, the lack of danger or external challenges means that it's counting on your interest in telling flashbacks and voiceover to navigate through a 2-hour runtime en route to an enlightenment that is far from revelatory in its execution or insight.
Not having read the autobiography on which Wild is based, it's still easy to imagine how this story worked better on the page than on the screen with books being a far more forgiving and fertile playground for internal insight and development than cinema. The trappings and stylings of Wild are nothing we haven't seen before and very likely a story that was best left to be flipped through rather than sat through.