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Leave You Behind: This is not an article about Wild.

Leave You Behind: This is not an article about Wild.

Sometimes a film is all thought and heart, there’s no need for a narrative arc when an ideological, or emotional, arc brings resolution. But how do we judge these films? Is it fair not just to look at film craft, but the message as well?

In some ways we saw this in Birdman. It was all discord and angst, but it still toyed with traditional character arcs and conflict resolution. Now we have Wild. In most ways it’s a cleaner film; pared down and focused. It’s still an emotional and ideological narrative, more so than a traditional “person A overcomes obstacle B” kind of thing. There is a clear character arc in the story of Cheryl Strayed, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that her journey serves as a conduit for the ideology, first and foremost. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Wild is one of the most difficult films I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t know how to be fair to it, but I know I didn’t like it.

On a technical level, it was quality film-making. The scenic outdoors are presented with a steady eye that never overpowers the human element. The narrative structure, which uses flashbacks of varying clarity and coherence, conveys the fragmentary impact of memory on the present. The acting is the kind of good that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It never feels like award baiting, or melodrama. It’s the kind of performance that lets you forget it’s performance. In a film like this, that’s the best kind.

And for all that, I didn’t like it. Why?

Because it’s all heart, and I didn’t like it’s heart.

The more I genuinely dislike a film, I’m more hesitant I am to write about it. I want to know that I’ve put my thoughts in order, and that I’m not about to take a shit on someones hard work because I’m having an off day.

But my problem with Wild isn’t even the movie. It’s about the audiences response. Is that fair? When I left Wild, the thing that bothered me most was the idolization of Strayed and her journey. Whatever message the film had about self-actualization was lost to me. For most of the run time, I just kept thinking of course you don’t like yourself, you’re a piece of shit. The Strayed of the film feels like someone hopelessly lost in some sort of half-baked Kierkegaardian life-as-art motif. She moves on from self-destruction not because of self discovery, but because the Pacific Coast Trial provides a suitable finale to the dysfunctional phase of her life.

I left the auditorium surrounded by people impressed by her undertaking, yet oblivious to the fact that she could only begin her journey after her destructive habits had eliminated the social bonds that prevent most people from taking such a journey. She could go on a long vacation because she had abandoned or betrayed all the people in her life. That’s fine, to a point, nothing says we need to like a protagonist. But Wild lacks perspective, the damage Strayed caused feels like a footnote, and I regularly found myself more concerned for the well-being of the people she left behind than for Strayed. I was never able to understand why I should invest in her story, and it upset me that such a large portion of the attending audience embraced it so readily. Wild assumes that you view self-actualization as the key to happiness. That you accept that Stayed’s destructive behavior stems from her inability to accept herself. If you disagree, the film simply leaves you behind.

I didn’t like Wild because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It engages, and it does so very well, but I don’t like what it says, and it bothers me that so many people are listening.

Honestly though, it was really well made.

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