Movie News & Reviews

Flashback technique distracts from compelling ‘Wild’ tale

Adapted from the best-selling 2012 memoir of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, “Wild” is the story of a woman who hiked more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail to overcome traumatic experiences.

Shifty, jarring flashbacks are scattered throughout the film and make the story tough to settle into.

Let’s be generous and presume director Jean-Marc Vallée wanted to accurately represent the scattered memories of a survivor. After all, the isolated, lengthy travel Strayed endured wouldn’t be accompanied by a polite, chronological sequence of memories because our minds don’t work like that.

But Vallée undermines those flashbacks by using them so often yet so briefly. The poignant scenes — often involving Strayed’s devoted, optimistic mother (wonderfully portrayed by Laura Dern) — end abruptly.

The disturbing moments also zip by as if Vallée is uncertain viewers can handle a storyline filled with drug use, promiscuity, cancer struggles and other subjects adult viewers have seen in countless other films.

Cable television is known for that shifty editing approach during provocative scenes, but it doesn’t work as well for feature films. In an era when home viewers are known to multi-task instead of focus on a movie, the film’s dramatic style won’t work for those whose eye or body wanders away.

For those who pay attention, “Wild” has a lot to take in.

Journey films understandably center on the journeyer, but “Wild” presents an eclectic range of people throughout. And they often have their own problems to worry about. When Strayed encounters another woman hiker on the trek, they equally exchange life outlooks. This strong cast of realistic supporting characters, passing the torch after their scene or two, keep the film compelling.

The soundtrack is also used with modest creativity. Simon and Garfunkel’s version of “El Condor Pasa” is the recurring motif, but that song, among others, is presented in thoughtful fragments.

I’ve appreciated Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, more in other performances through her career (“Election” and “Mud” are highlights) but I’m uncertain if it is Vallée’s approach that detracted from her portrayal. The character was annoying me toward the end, until the film’s excellent closing monologue — presumably lifted from the memoir. Strayed gave such an empowering, resolute summation of her experiences that it’s hard to resist seeking the potentially better source material.

If a successful adaptation means you yearn to read the book, “Wild” passes splendidly.

Recommended for:

• Loners.

• Recovering addicts who hate recovering addict films.

• Those who usually can’t handle heavy dramas.