Dear Fellow Critics,
Grudge Match was the last film I saw in 2013 and the first film I reviewed for Dear Cast and Crew. Wild was the last film I saw in 2014, and the first film I reviewed in 2015.
I was more excited to see Grudge Match.
I’m a sucker for an underdog story, especially a boxing one, but what disappointed me most wasn’t the hackneyed narrative or the phoned-in performances (both of which I expected). Grudge Match was just so blatantly misogynistic and homophobic that it was almost satire. A dude-bro recruitment film. I left the theatre feeling cheated.
Wild already had a strike against it when I heard that it had been adapted from an Oprah Book Club pick, a memoir by a woman who walked 1100 miles of the gruelling Pacific Crest Trail alone. I steeled myself for treacly sentimentality and faux-earnest narration over an Enya-heavy soundtrack. I apologized in advance to my sci-fi-loving husband who would much rather have been watching Interstellar. But from the first few moments that Reese Witherspoon appeared onscreen, bleeding and swearing, I was captivated. Humbled, even.
Unlike my esteemed colleague Christopher, I did not see 200 films in 2014. I didn’t see 100. I doubt I even saw 50. This has less to do with the state of modern cinema and more to do with the fact that I really dislike going to the theatre unless I absolutely have to. I’m always the first member of the DCAC crew to volunteer to watch a screener from the comfort of my couch. Based on the paltry number of films I saw in 2014, it may not even be fair for me to weigh in on which one was the best. But I can make an argument for why Wild was the most important.
I’ve spent almost fifteen years watching movies professionally, but rarely do I watch them for myself. Every once in a while a film manages to sneak past my critical gaze and move me, not just as a critic, but as an individual. Children of Men and Diving Bell and the Butterfly are some recent examples. C.R.A.Z.Y., as well. All of which feature male protagonists.
The last time a female-driven film touched me so profoundly was Thelma & Louise in 1991. Is Wild as good as Thelma & Louise? Jean-Marc Vallée might be a better director than Ridley Scott is now, but not better than he was in his prime. And, yes, timing is everything. Thelma & Louise was the movie the 18 year-old me needed. For a young feminist and writer, its influence was undeniable. Thelma and Louise were thrust into a situation that required them to react quickly and violently; they became accidental poster girls for third-wave feminism and unwittingly ignited a cultural shitstorm. Critics called the film misandrist, the protagonists poor role models. Time accused Thelma & Louise of being ''tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate rage and deranged violence.'' They killed exactly one guy. A rapist. It always struck me odd that their contemporary male counterparts – John Rambo, John McClane, Riggs & Murtaugh – were never held to task for their collective quadruple-digit body counts. But hey, boys will be boys, amirite?
Wild arrived at the end of a game-changing year for women. Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, and the #beenrapedneverreported hashtag. Ray and Janay Rice and the #whyistayed and #whyileft phenomenon. The Hollaback catcall video and #yesallwomen. Gamergate. Regardless of personal opinion, there’s no denying that these events forced a dialogue that was long overdue. And yet a quick perusal of the comments section for any of these news stories (or sadly, even for the Wild trailer) is a nasty reminder of just how far we need to go.
There persists a tangible resistance not just to the concept of feminism, but to the very word itself. I was pleasantly shocked when Wild’s protagonist Cheryl Strayed is asked point blank if she is a feminist and she responds without hesitation in the affirmative. Alone on the trail, Cheryl experiences dangerous terrain, dehydration, rattlesnakes, and other potentially fatal circumstances—and yet her most terrifying encounter is with a man. Yes, this film is about overcoming odds, facing personal demons, and finding redemption. But it’s also about consent.
It matters that Cheryl’s choices are frustrating and make her difficult to like. She is the kind of heroine we need to see more of: she’s interesting. She’s a former junkie. She’s promiscuous. She’s angry, funny, determined, intelligent, and deeply wounded without ever being tragic. She owns her mistakes. She has no regrets, and the only person she feels the need to apologize to is herself. It’s refreshing to see a powerful female lead that can be complicated and vulnerable without giving up her own agency.
But my response to Wild is about more than just the simple fact that Cheryl is unapologetically feminist. It’s not merely a better-than-average chick-flick. It transcends genre because technically and tonally it’s a really, really good film.
On the page, it might seem pretty simple; no explosions, car chases, complicated CGI sequences, or hordes of extras. But too often these quiet stories of personal triumph get mired in maudlin cliché. Or worse, fall into the biopic trap of trying too hard to impose a clever framing device that encompasses and explains someone’s life, which more often than not results in weak, forgettable characterization. Vallée is one of the few directors assured enough to understand that his role is to be in service to the story. Maybe that’s why so many of his choices seem instinctual rather than contrived.
Vallée assembled a team that elevated this film beyond its Eat, Pray, Love on a Mountain premise. Nick Hornby’s unadorned script, music supervisor Susan Jacob’s period-sensitive yet surprisingly original soundtrack, and Yves Belanger’s understated cinematography all work together to tell Cheryl’s story without polishing it to a sheen. Reese Witherspoon’s transformation is every bit as noteworthy as Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Nightcrawler. Laura Dern’s performance as Cheryl’s mother is characteristically unaffected and heartbreakingly powerful. The dynamic of a daughter entering adulthood and questioning her mother’s life choices is rarely seen, let alone translated so succinctly. When Cheryl asks, “Does it bother you that I’m more sophisticated than you were at my age?” Dern’s reply is gutting: “That’s all I ever wanted for you, but I can’t say it doesn’t hurt sometimes.”
Grudge Match insulted me as a viewer. But to be fair, it’s no more insulting than the countless cookie-cutter rom-coms starring Katherine Heigel or Cameron Diaz (or Reese Witherspoon, for that matter), who unfailingly play successful (but klutzy, always klutzy) women whose lives are only fulfilled when they find a man (not to be confused with their action movie counterparts: the buxom, ass-kicking, but one-dimensional “Strong Female Characters” designed to placate female audiences without alienating male viewers). What’s revolutionary about Wild is how it breaks those stereotypes without really trying. Cheryl is a college drop-out, raised below the poverty line, who completes her journey and is left with no money, no job, no home, and no man. That’s her happy ending.
Feminism is just one of many themes in Wild, and it’s not the most important. When a story is this compelling, the gender of the protagonist becomes irrelevant. Films as thoughtfully crafted as Wild have the ability to resonate with more than just their target demo. If that’s not equality, I don’t know what is.
I had to wait a year, but I finally got to see that underdog film about a fighter who overcomes the odds. I just hope I don’t have to wait another 24 years to see the next one.