Maybe there’s something in Cheryl Strayed’s writing voice that has enthralled readers of her bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, an account of a solo walking journey. If so, that voice hasn’t translated to the movie version.
The film stars Reese Witherspoon, who also produced it. You can see why the star wanted the material: it’s a big role, full of bad behavior and attitude and acting-out. We meet Cheryl Strayed (she made up the last name) as she embarks on hiking a thousand miles of the PCT. We also see plenty of flashbacks to an unhappy life — promiscuity and drug abuse are highlighted — and track the sad fate of Strayed’s mother (Laura Dern).
After the official fall film launch of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate, the first significant American fest is the New York Film Festival. But due to the quirks of international film festival branding, another event that plays out during roughly the same period offers many of the films showcased in New York as well as a great variety of additional international films. While New York provides the American launches of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (among many others) to great media attention, Vancouver quietly screens them across the country almost simultaneously, hot off their respective World or North American debuts at Toronto. For folks on the West Coast, the Vancouver International Film Festival is not just a great alternative to see these and other films, it’s an easier festival to navigate and an affordable festival to play in. Plus, if you have a particular interest in Asian cinema, it’s the place to find films from those directors yet to be anointed and celebrated in the anchor festivals around the world.
Opening night was set aside for a Canadian filmmaker continuing his Hollywood success story. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star/producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.
Matthew McConaughey is so good in Dallas Buyers Club (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand) that he shows up the limitations of this based-on-true-events drama. McConaughey lost a lot weight to play Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician and rodeo rider in the late 1980s whose reckless lifestyle leaves him with AIDS, a diagnosis this redneck homophobe denies vehemently before educating himself on the disease and the dangers of the early treatments.
It’s a story of outcasts and mavericks who pursue an alternative approach to fighting AIDS outside of the oversight and restrictions of the FDA and the AMA, or at least that’s how it presents itself. That it succeeds with so many audiences is testament to the way director Jean-Marc Vallée puts us in Ron’s perspective as his body breaks down, and to the performances by McConaughey and Jared Leto. McConaughey plays up his drawling charm without losing the con man and bigot under the denial and self-destruction of Ron, and his turnaround isn’t a matter of evolution so much as survival. Leto is equally good as Rayon, a transsexual in the midst of reassignment regimen who teams up with Ron to set up the “buyers club” to bring medication in from Mexico. They both earned Oscar nominations and Golden Globe wins for their work.
The rest of the cast of characters are just there to prop up the script’s narrative needs. Jennifer Garner’s sympathetic doctor ends up in the generic supportive girlfriend role to the unlikely activist Ron (even though she’s not really his girlfriend) and Denis O’Hare’s establishment doctor is so blindly obedient to the drug companies that he refuses to look at studies on the side effects and toxic properties of AZT. The film takes Ron’s side unilaterally in its portrait of the FDA, the medical profession, and big pharma as a cabal stifling innovation and suppressing contradictory research on the “wonder drug” AZT. There is probably an interesting story on the politics and medical controversy over the drug to be explored, but it’s nowhere to be found in this script, which nonetheless received a nomination for Original Screenplay. It earned six nominations in all, including Best Film.