This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) felt like audiences were strolling the aisles in their favorite bookstores (ideally an independent bookseller with a café stocked with tasty fair-trade beverages), searching for best-selling biographies about dramatic figures just outside the glaring media spotlight — somewhat familiar folks (Stephen Hawking) or historic enigmas (Alan Turing) or unsettling figures (John E. du Pont) who seized a random moment in our 24-hour news cycle. The problem with this overarching scenario is the expectation that these films will engage us by exposing the quirky flaws of the subjects and draw parallels to our own experiences — our tangential brushes with genius or our fascination with the macabre oddballs that seem to be uniquely American. But, lurking behind, another dilemma bedevils filmmakers and audiences.
How do we (re)tell these tales, adapted from either the pages of tomes or historic record, with panache, transforming them into resonant and moving filmed exploits rather than merely an abbreviated recitation of a subject’s life mile-markers? The old adage tells us that it is not the destination, but the journey that matters, so what can storytellers do to make the long ride worth the effort?
Thus far, the TIFF biopics have done little to tweak the long and winding roads their subjects paved. The real work has fallen again and again onto the shoulders of the performers, who have gone to extraordinary lengths to breathe life into these characters. Whether through breathtaking physical transformations, deep psychological submersion or with the aid of prosthetic enhancements, a talented collection of actors remade themselves into these “others” and transcended the conventionality of their films.
Yet, in one case, a slightly different approach has yielded a quietly remarkable degree of success. Jean-Marc Vallée, who made a name for himself last year with Dallas Buyers Club — another installment in the recent line of biopics — walked the more conventional path with that outing and found himself in a situation similar to this year’s entrants. Dallas Buyers Club — an Academy Award darling with nominations for editing, original screenplay and motion picture and wins for makeup and hairstyling, supporting actor (Jared Leto) and actor (Matthew McConaughey) — will forever be remembered for its two mesmerizing performances. Following its premiere TIFF press screening, I couldn’t help but notice that the film was little more than a television movie of the week with two unforgettable actors working on another level, far beyond everyone else in their film and quite possibly in all of the films of 2013.
Flash-forward one year later and Vallée is back with Wild, another TIFF entry and, yes, another memoir. This time, he tapped author/screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) to delve into Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which documents her solo 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Coast. Talk about an epic journey; what Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out to do is foolhardy and self-destructive at first glance. Her life is crashing down around her — a failed marriage, a drug and sex-induced out-of-control spiral, an inability to deal with the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) — and she impulsively decides to strap a huge pack on her back and head off into the unknown to find herself. It is a typically privileged first-world response to life’s setbacks, and seemingly easy fodder for ridicule.
But Vallée and Hornby sense a challenge here; a truly alternative personal narrative that breaks free of the rote mapping we might anticipate. Wild, at times, approximates a fever dream as Strayed wanders along, stumbling (sometimes on the verge of a catastrophic breakdown) into recollections of her past, instances just as wild and dangerous as the moment she finds herself in, and we see her desperation, how close she is to the edge and a willingness to surrender, to run and jump off the cliff. Witherspoon captures the raw and open wounds of Strayed, the ways in which she constantly repacks them and awaits the fresh bleeding.
That she doesn’t give in to this urge in no way denotes a simple happy ending to those moments or the film as a whole, which defines Wild as a notable departure from the memoir/biopic playbook. Vallée learned a lesson from his Dallas Buyers Club experience, one that this year’s gaggle of motion picture memorialists would be wise to emulate in the future. The real meaning of that line about the journey and the destination is that every so often, you have to ignore the destination entirely in order to appreciate the steps along the way. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (R)
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