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Reese Witherspoon’s Best Movie About Love Isn’t a Rom-Com

Sorry ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Your Place or Mine.’

When you hear the name, Reese Witherspoon, do you automatically think of her role as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde? Or maybe one of her many romantic comedies like Sweet Home Alabama or her new Netflix film opposite Ashton KutcherYour Place or Mine, pops into your head. It’s true that Witherspoon has done quite well for herself with these roles in lighter and fun films that are a hit with the targeted demographic of ages 18-49. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that her most compelling and emotional role was in a film that is on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to genre. Witherspoon shines the brightest in a film where there is little dialogue and absolutely no fluffy subject matter, playing the very real hiker, Cheryl Strayed. In 2014’s Wild, the actress tackles some of life’s heaviest issues and goes on a journey of self-discovery to bring herself out of a downward spiral that has left her paralyzed by sadness, anger, and fear. It’s not a rom-com by any means, but it’s Witherspoon’s most powerful film about love – self-love, to be exact.

Flashbacks in ‘Wild’ Show Cheryl’s Pain and Trauma

Flashbacks of all the things that Cheryl Strayed is trying to come to terms with are used early and often in Wild. They range from happy moments spent with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), growing up to some embarrassing episodes including when the two attended the same high school when Bobbi decides to complete her education much later in life. The most important moments center around her mother’s diagnosis of spinal cancer and her subsequent death as well as one that shows Cheryl and Bobbi discussing their relationship with Cheryl’s father who was physically and mentally abusive. They have a special bond that gets pushed to the limit time and time again as Cheryl learns to adjust to a very difficult upbringing interspersed with moments of pure joy that the two share together. On the first day of her hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl has a particularly painful memory of her mother and lets out a primal scream to release the years of pain that she went through.

Cheryl Finds a New Community and Reckons With Her Past

The first several weeks on the trail prove to be extremely trying for Cheryl who is often times unprepared for the elements and not carrying the necessary equipment (despite hauling a massive backpack that is as big as she is). She brings the wrong burner and is unable to heat any of her food resulting in a diet of cold mush that leaves her weak from malnutrition and on the verge of starvation. Luckily, she stumbles across another hiker who is able to get her through to the closest rest area where she befriends some people making the same journey. They are more experienced and welcome Cheryl with open arms, getting her squared away as she heads on her way up the trail. Finding this group and being accepted into their ranks gives Cheryl some much-needed confidence and a break from the solitude that sometimes takes her into her own mind revisiting painful memories of an abusive husband, a serious drug addiction, and the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy and get a divorce. Witherspoon’s portrayal of Strayed doesn’t pull any punches and gets down to the very gritty and ugly details of how her life has become untenable and nearly leads to her death from both physical abuse and an overdose of heroin.

‘Wild’ Shows the Reality of Women Traveling Solo

What you may not remember about the film are the tense moments that occur when as a single woman making the difficult and dangerous trek of the Pacific Crest Trail, she often encounters strange men along the way. She is extremely vulnerable in several situations including approaching a farmer for help as she is dehydrated to the point of almost passing out. The farmer, Frank, and his motivation for helping Cheryl are unclear and appear like they may be nefarious. Fortunately, Frank turns out to be a good man who offers her a hot meal and bed for the night. Another precarious situation occurs when she comes across a handful of men who may have some unsavory thoughts and ill-intent in their minds about exploiting the situation and taking advantage of a small woman alone in a remote area of the trail. Most notably, Cheryl is met by two men out hunting who are also under the influence of alcohol. One of the men begins to make some unsavory innuendos towards Cheryl, and it makes for some of the tensest moments in the film when you realize what could happen to her out there alone.

Cheryl Finds Independence and Inner Peace

The entire point of taking on such a daunting journey as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail all alone is to be able to use the peaceful, serene views and allow yourself to discover who you really are. To find out what your purpose is, so you can live life for yourself instead of trying to exist for someone else. Being left to her own devices allows Cheryl to stand on her own two feet and discover that though her life has been filled with certain mistakes, tragedies, and abuse, the strength that she needs has resided within her, and her alone, the whole time. She finds true independence, and by the time she finishes her epic trip, Cheryl is able to be confident that she doesn’t need anything or anyone else in her life to be content with who she is. The final line of the film is a terrific and pointed statement right before the credits roll when she says, “How wild it was to let it be.” She found her purpose along the way, which was to find out how to just, “be.” It’s a very complex and wise statement put so simply.

‘Wild’ Sees Reese Witherspoon at Her Most Vulnerable

Reese Witherspoon is an enormously gifted actress who has found success in just about every area of entertainment that she has tried. She has a wide array of talents including great comedic timing, the ability to be dramatic in projects like Big Little Lies (a show that she also produced), and her ability to be so believable as a love interest in a bevy of rom-coms. But her soul-searching turn as Cheryl in Wild is Reese Witherspoon at her most vulnerable and unfiltered. The true story allows her to display her range in the form of a troubled, downward-spiraling character who sets out to find herself and ends up walking her way to a peaceful answer.

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