Before you label Wild a ‘Reese Witherspoon movie,’ you have to see it from start to end. You’d be surprise that it’s not your typical movie from her. It’s more.
The story begins in 1995 with Cheryl Strayed, a young twentysomething, about to start a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail. This comes right after her divorce from Paul, her husband of seven years. One of the many troubles in Cheryl’s life. Cheryl looks to hiking the trail as a chance to reshape her life and gain inner strength. But at first, you will think Cheryl doesn’t have what it takes to do this long hike. It’s an 1,100 mile journey and on top of it, Cheryl is struggling to simply put on her 40-pound backpack, never mind walk with it. And on uneven terrain that includes mountains? Can she do it? Even her best friend Aimee feels she can’t do it.
The hike starts with great difficulty. Walking with the heavy backpack, she has difficulties on the first day such as not even hiking ten miles, being without cooking fuel and being unable to set up a tent properly. The days get stronger over time but it’s still very gradual as the second day she’s made aware of the type of wild animals she would have to deal with.
Over time she would have to find help. On the third day, she asks a farmer for help. He offers to take her to her house but she’s nervous about it, especially since she sees a gun in his car. She later learns he’s a married man and the couple offer her to stay overnight. Over time she meets other people that offer her help from a father and his teenage son to full families to people at various camping goods stores and retailers to hippies in a local California town who pay tribute to Jerry Garcia upon his recent death at the time to three college guys out having a fun hike together to even hikers that also plan to do the trail but eventually fail. Not all were helpful. One was a journalist for a magazine who just took pictures of her and interviewed her. Another was a group of snowboarders on a mountain top who just leave her. Another was a pair of threatening-looking men she met at a well only to be encountered by the bowhunter later looking like he would want to do something harmful to her. Fortunately it doesn’t happen as his colleague tells him to return.
However it’s the alone times of the hike that are the most crucial. In between the times she signs a name on the hike log that includes using a quote or line of poetry from a famous poet, Cheryl is all alone and has the moments of her past come back to her. Moments like a childhood with an abusive father her mother leaves taking her younger brother and her at age 6, going through high school while her mother was returning to complete her graduation, marrying Paul a successful restaurant owner while young, learning her mother has cancer and her dying sooner than expected, having her mother’s cherished horse put down, leaving Paul and hitting the inner city of Portland where she adopts a drug habit and even has an abortion. Those are the memories Cheryl is trying to wrestle with in her hike. Her cheap therapy hasn’t helped but maybe this hike will.
The thing with this film is that it’s not just to show the trip Cheryl took but also the flashbacks to the moments of her life that both trouble her and define her. We don’t just see the bad memories she’s dealing with but we feel them too. We may first just see Cheryl right after she finished her divorce at the beginning but as the trip progresses, we start feeling her situation. We learn of the bond she had with her mother and why her death hurt her terribly. We learn of how her marriage to Paul fell apart. We learn of her drug abuse. We learn of her abusive father she hasn’t seen since she was a small girl. We learn of the cheap therapy she tried at first but didn’t work. We learn of her no-so-close relationship with her brother. Over time, we see why Cheryl wants to use this trip to heal herself and it comes to appear as the right thing for her to do.
The film gives a good sense of inner strength Cheryl acquires over time with the hike. At first Cheryl appears to be a completely amateur camper who can’t get her backpack on right, can’t put up a tent well and can’t cook a proper dinner outdoors. You think she doesn’t have a chance in completing it. You’d think even more so when she comes across threatening creatures like rattlesnakes and cougars along the way. You’d also think that way in seeing she can’t even cover ten miles a day during the beginning of her trip. Sometimes you think she might become a victim of crime as there would be some threatening people she’d encounter, especially that bowhunter. Nevertheless she gets stronger with each and every mile.
However the film also succeeds in conveying the popular saying ‘the journey is the destination.’ It shows Cheryl being enriched by her experience while mentally fighting her troubles of the past. That’s not just acquired from her hiking but also from the people she meets. It’s people like the farmer who first appears threatening but becomes helpful along with his wife, like the hippies she encounters upon the death of Jerry Garcia, like the men at the store who help her reduce her packing, like the various hikers she comes across, and people like the grandson who sings ‘Red River Valley.’ There are many people that enrich her experience. Even those that seem insignificant like that journalist on the road or the three young college boys hiking together and goofing off appear to give some extra richness to her experience. Even the quotes from various authors and poets Cheryl puts in the logbooks add to the richness of the journey.
Another key aspect the film focuses on is people’s attitudes, especially in dealing with the hardships of life. We see Cheryl as she went through a self-destructive path after her mother died and needed a way out. She took the Trail in hopes that it would help her recover. We also see her mother who had also been through hardships of her own but still holds her head high. That scene where she says she doesn’t regret marrying Ronald because she had her and Leif. You think people that are constantly positive are naive and foolish but she shows strength in positive thinking. Even seeing her on her deathbed laughing how she finally gets a ‘room with a view,’ it takes a special kind of person to hold their head high during difficult times. I think it was because of her mother’s positive attitude that Cheryl knew she couldn’t be a victim anymore and needed to heal herself. That’s why she took that hike. Interesting how there are some people like Bobbi who just have that ability to stay strong in hard times and there are people like Cheryl who need to acquire that inner strength.
Without a doubt, the film belonged to Reese Witherspoon. This is not the typical Reese Witherspoon movie. This is Reese playing someone completely different from roles she’s played before in the past and it’s a role with immense depth. Even playing Cheryl at various ages in the film. She comes out shining. Even though this appears to be a one-person film, it’s Laura Dern who does an excellent job as Bobbi and even steals the film at times. She makes being positive in difficult times look smart and strong instead of naive and foolish. Thomas Sadoski did good playing Paul but his role could have been developed more as could have the role of her brother Leif played by Keene McRae and the role of best friend Aimee played by Gaby Hoffman. The various supporting performances were also excellent and added to the film. Even the briefest of performances.
Jean-Marc Vallee does it again. He really made a name for himself last year with the Dallas Buyers Club and he adds to his reputation here. He succeeds in making it the personal story of Cheryl’s it’s supposed to be while adding to the environment of the story. Nick Hornby did a very good job of writing out the story from Cheryl’s memoirs keeping in the key parts of her hike and of her life. The film made a wise choice in keeping the story mostly score-free and let the sounds of the wild and even the chill of silence add to the story. That scene of the bowhunter appearing to either want to rape or murder Cheryl wouldn’t have worked as well with a score. The inclusion of the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘El Condor Pasa‘ is an excellent addition. It’s almost like it becomes Cheryl’s own personal anthem. Also noteworthy are the contributions by Strayed herself where she’s the associate producer and even plays a woman in a truck in the film. Her daughter Bobbi Lindstrom even plays Cheryl as a child.
Wild is a bit of a melodrama but it’s not the least bit boring. It’s a very deep, very enriching story of one woman using a hike to fight her inner troubles. We not only witness her gain inner strength from it, we experience it.
If only I was a professional film critic, I’d be able to see all the movies and DVDs before year’s end to make my Top 10 list of the year. But I’m just an everyday schmuck like you who has to wait until the movies hit the theatre or come out on DVD to see them. Thus once again a delay this late in my Top 10 list. Maybe one year I’ll finally be an official film critic. You can always hope.
Anyways without further ado, many of you have already seen my lists of my Top 10’s from 2002 to 2010 and of 2011. Now I finally have my list out of the Top 10 of 2012 and five honorable mention picks:
MY TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2012
- Zero Dark Thirty
- Silver Linings Playbook
- Beasts Of The Southern Wild
- The Life of Pi
- Les Miserables
- The Master
- Searching For Sugar Man
- Django Unchained
- Moonrise Kingdom
- The Hunger Games
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
- Wreck-It Ralph
” I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they’re gonna find it all. They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
Funny how back during the summer of 2012 there were two hit movies from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival that were released: Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom. If you asked me which one would be most likely to be a Best Picture nominee for this year’s Oscars, I wouldn’t guessed Moonrise Kingdom would have the best chances. How wrong I was. I finally had my chance to see Beasts so I can see why it’s a Best Picture nominee and I now know why.
This film starts with Hushpuppy: a young girl living in an island community on the Louisiana bayou called ‘The Bathtub’. The Bathtub is a small community cut off from the rest of society by the water surrounding the island but it’s close-knit and shares in its bonds and celebrations. Hushpuppy and her father don’t have much but they’re optimistic for each other and share a close bond. The bond is threatened as Wink is missing and Hushpuppy has to fend for herself. Wink returns in a hospital gown and argues with Hushpuppy. Things get worse when Hushpuppy sets her house on fire. That leads to fight that starts with Wink slapping Hushpuppy and her responding with a punch to Wink’s heart that leaves him collapsing of cardiac arrest.
Meanwhile the ice caps are melting due to climate change and the melting ice unleashes the Aurochs: prehistoric ice-age creatures Hushpuppy learns of in school. A storm brews, threatening the Bathtub community. It’s then that Hushpuppy and Wink reunite and he keeps her shelter in his home. He even tries to calm her by shooting bullets in the sky to ‘scare off the storm’. After the storm, the two reunite with other people of the Bathtub community. Their attempt to rebuild the community is halted as saltwater has flooded the community. Even an attempt by Wink to detonate a bomb made out of an alligator carcass doesn’t succeed well enough and the residents are forced by authorities to evacuate the Bathtub to an emergency shelter and Wink to face further medical attention. All are resistant as the evacuees escape back to their homes and Wink is too violently stubborn to face surgery.
Hushpuppy knows her father will die despite whatever help he’s given and she goes searching for her mother whom her father has commonly reminisced over. She thinks she found her in an island restaurant as a waitress. Nevertheless the waitress tells her she can’t take care of her. This soon leads Hushpuppy to soon face the Aurochs and deal with her dying father. This leads to an ending that is both intense and solemn.
The film is a unique story of an environmental catastrophe threatening the life of a Louisiana bayou. A lot of images of people taking refuge may remind a lot of people about Hurricane Katrina from seven years ago. The best thing about this film is that it’s more than just an envirofiction story set in the present but also one styled to look like a folk story from the Southern US along the styles of a Mark Twain folk story. Without a doubt, the protagonist Hushpuppy is the spirit of the story and the characters surrounding her, both humans and other beings, area also as much a part of it. She was a little six year-old with a spirit of toughness. Even though she was five, she had to have a toughness for her age as life on the bayou was no ‘big easy.’ People, especially her father Wink, had to hold their own and faced constant threats. People had to be tough. This was something Hushpuppy took to heart as made evident when she tried to do her own cooking. Despite burning down her house, it showed how this was a thing Hushpuppy had to do at such a young age. That was also evident with the scene of the ‘alligator bomb’. This was something too dangerous but Hushpuppy was determined to aid because she felt it needed to be done.
Despite Hushpuppy being the lead protagonist, Wink was the key supporting role as he would have the best impact on Hushpuppy. The biggest key element of Wink was how key he was in another major theme of the movie: the sense of values most people in town in the South carried that most of us modern city folk either take for granted or overlook as we want to live however we want to. He knew how important in life it was to be tough and he passed on his beliefs to Hushpuppy because he wanted her to have that same toughness. He owned a domain that most people would label as a ‘hunk of junk’ but he always considered it his and he was determined to keep it even during times of disaster. He and the neighbors bonded together in a time of taking shelter and escaped because they all felt a huge bond of community. It was a stubborn sense of these values Wink possessed as he refused to let go of them even if he knew he was dying. These were values that he wanted to pass onto Hushpuppy. He wanted her to be tough including encouraging her not to cry. He wanted her to be responsible and hold her own. He wanted her to have a bond with the community. These were values he wanted to pass onto Hushpuppy as he knew that he would soon die and it would be her turn now. And it was evident as Hushpuppy would carry out her father’s last wish and also stay with her community until the bitter end.
The biggest efforts of the movie have to go to Benh Zeitlin with his many efforts. He directed it, he co-composed the music with Dan Romer, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar: author of the one-act play Juicy And Delirious of which the film is inspired by. What he delivers is a major accomplishment in filmmaking that paints a picture of an area and of a people as it tells a story. It tells a story of a community fighting to stay alive and together despite huge environmental adversity. Interesting that his Wikipedia bio says he was born to folklorist parents and it becomes evident in this film as the film, as I mentioned earlier, also styles the protagonist of this drama to come across as a folk hero one could recognize from fiction set in the south in the 1800’s. Ben’s only 30 and this is his first feature-length film after directing three shorts but he appears to have a promising future ahead of him despite nothing upcoming listed on his IMDB profile. Time will tell if he either moves on to bigger and better things or if he becomes a one-hit wonder director.
Even though the movie’s accomplishments are mostly Zeitlin’s they are also greatly through the efforts of young Quvenzhane Wallis. She was actually six at the time of filming but she did her job excellently but also delivering a character as tough as nails as much as she was a happy spirit. Also a delight to see a child perform a character that isn’t too cutesy. I’ll admit she will make some people uncomfortable when she describes somebody as a ‘pussy’ but she delivers a character that’s not only tough but with the charm of those folk heroes of the southern US literature I keep talking about. Sure, Benh may have directed her to be such but took Wallis to be the perfect fit and to deliver.
Also as important is Dwight Henry. Being a non-actor is an advantage for him in portraying Wink. He delivers a character who’s gritty and stubborn but loving and gives Hushpuppy a tough bond that he wants to last even after he dies. The supporting actors didn’t have as strong of roles but their performances also added to the movie whether it was their performances or even their presence as non-actors as it made the story feel that much more realistic. Also they gave personalities to people one would normally call ‘rednecks’. People deemed ‘rednecks’ are the subject of jokes and humor form the light-hearted jokes of Jeff Foxworthy to the trashy faux-reality of Honey Boo Boo but this film shows them as people with needs just like everyday people. Kind of the same way Winter’s Bone portrayed people commonly known as ‘hillbillies.’ Interesting how this film was made on a budget of $1.8 million and it wins nominations from the Academy. Buzz and awards wins from both Sundance and Cannes definitely helped it. Funny how size matters where the little guy has an advantage.
Beast Of The Southern Wild is a piece of modern folklore by a director with a folklore upbringing that becomes an accomplishment through is directing and storytelling and Wallis’ portrayal of a pint-size heroine. Those who see it will never forget it.
And there you have it. This is now the thirteenth year in a row I’ve done my pursuit of seeing all the Best Picture winners before the Oscars. Hard to believe it myself. Yes it’s tiring but it becomes worth it both for the sake of my blog and for Oscar night.