A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir about the cathartic three and a half months she spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, the movie is part journey of self discovery and part flashback to the good, the bad, and the ugly in Strayed's past, particularly the self-destructive behavior that followed the death of her beloved mother. The mature content includes partial nudity (both sexual and matter-of-fact), several sex scenes (most of which are extramarital), explicit drug use (heroin), and strong language ("f--k," "s--t," and more). The heavy themes (domestic abuse, grief, addiction, abortion, etc.) might prove too much for many adolescents, but the movie does offer various subjects for parents to discuss with mature older teens: the importance of parent-child relationships, signs of unhealthy behavior, and the life-changing power of a monumental trip.
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What's the story?
Like the memoir on which it's based, WILD is a touching exploration of a woman's life-changing 1,000-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. In her mid-20s and in a state of crisis, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sees a PCT guidebook while shopping for pregnancy tests in a pharmacy. Once her divorce is final, she's off heroin, and she's aborted an unplanned pregnancy, Cheryl decides to pack an oversized backpack with newly purchased camping gear and hike 1,000 miles of the trail. Her goal? To once again become the woman that her dearly departed mother (Laura Dern) raised her to become, rather than the shell of a person she'd become. During her solo trek, Cheryl reflects on her past, both the good (her beautiful mother and Cheryl's faithful and long-suffering ex-husband) and the bad (her mother's death, Cheryl's string of affairs and subsequent drug abuse). Although she encounters others on and off the trail, the movie, even more than the book, focuses on Cheryl battling her demons with every labored step.
Is it any good?
Wild isn't a movie for anyone who hates stories of how hitting the road, climbing a mountain, or setting off for an adventure can lift the spirit and cleanse the soul. Because that's what this movie is about -- a woman with lots of emotional baggage who doesn't know a thing about serious trekking but manages to go from greenhorn to seasoned queen of the PCT. Witherspoon isn't really known as a gritty actress, so many worried that she'd be miscast as Cheryl (at least the Cheryl in flashbacks who has casual hook-ups and shoots up drugs), but it's clear she was all in for this performance, baring her body and giving every scene her best. Witherspoon humanizes a character who, on the page, can seem overwhelmingly selfish and unlikable. On screen, Witherspoon's nuanced portrayal is touching, especially when she shares scenes with Dern, who's only nine years older than Witherspoon but convincingly plays her young survivor of a mother. Dern's performance is heartbreakingly beautiful (just like in The Fault in Her Stars). Bobbi is what makes viewers believe that Cheryl has the power to be extraordinary.
In addition to the acting, the movie benefits from gorgeous visuals of the PCT, with sweeping vistas that will make even those who avoid going outdoors understand how experiencing nature on your own can and will change you forever. Director Jean-Marc Vallee doesn't shy away from the harsh obstacles Cheryl must overcome, physically and emotionally; by the end of the movie, you still may not love her, but you can't help believing in her power to rise out of the darkness and into the light.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the popularity of stories about journeys of self-discovery. How is this one different? What does Cheryl learn on her trip?
What's Wild's message? Why do you think Cheryl says that she doesn't regret anything she's done or that's happened to her?
Discuss Cheryl's romantic and sexual relationships; are any of them healthy? Is her promiscuity portrayed as a problem, an understandable response to grief, or an expression of her sexuality?
Does the movie make you interested in reading the book? For parents (or teens) who've already read it, discuss some of the changes and omissions from page to screen.
- In theaters: December 3, 2014
- On DVD or streaming: March 31, 2015
- Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann
- Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Science and Nature
- Run time: 115 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language
- Last updated: May 12, 2021
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