Laura Dern floated into the Hamptons International Film Festival on Friday night in a petal pink Zac Posen, leggy and lanky and sophisticated. And yet when she opened up about playing Cheryl Strayed’s working-class mother, Bobbi, in Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild” opposite Reese Witherspoon, it was clear that whether Dern wore tube tops from Target or designer dresses, beneath the fabric beats a warm and caring heart.
In the post-screening Q&A, Dern (also recently seen in “The Fault in our Stars” and TV’s “Enlightened”) discussed her central role in this rare mother-daughter love story. It’s adapted from Strayed’s wildly popular memoir about abuse and redemption and a 1000-mile hike on the Pacific Coast Trail. While there has been Oscar buzz for Witherspoon’s stripped down, sexed up Cheryl, Dern deserves Best Supporting Actress attention for maximizing every scene she’s in.
Dern’s character, Bobbi, appears entirely in flashback as Strayed walks the trail, encountering strangers and the stranger within herself while digesting the past. “I fell in love with the book and Nick Hornby’s adaptation,” said Dern. “I had this oddly isolated experience because I focused on Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi, and the idea of earned gratitude.”
In one pivotal kitchen scene, Witherspoon’s Cheryl sits at the kitchen table and confronts her mother for always seeing the bright side of life, singing and dancing while she cooks, despite their poverty and struggles and past spousal abuse. Bobbi pauses, stirring the soup to explain to her daughter that her apparently sunny attitude is a conscious choice.
“What’s beautiful about Cheryl’s remembrance of her mother,” Dern explained to the audience, discussing Strayed’s refusal to sugarcoat her past behavior, “is that in a very shameless way as Cheryl shares her story with us, she really honors the mess of being a daughter, the lack of respect that is essential in being a daughter as you grow up, and with the tragic loss of her mother, the realization of the gift of her mother.”
Dern added that the scene “was to have such profound poetry and value in terms of wisdom that her mother was offering. But Jean-Marc [Vallee] makes sure to film that moment in such a way that it’s thrown away, like many of our memories of the most valuable moments in our life. I think he does a beautiful job to hold both the poignancy of the moment and allow it to be both simple and honest.”
The actress had her own personal way into the material as well. “The thing that’s the most profound for me, that I took away from this movie is that we’re asked to consider and to be grateful for our mistakes without judging,” she said.
In a touching anecdote that choked up the full house, the mother of two revealed how close and familial they all became on set: Strayed’s tow-headed daughter, Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom, plays Cheryl as a child in flashbacks. The author told Dern that while little Bobbi had never met her own grandmother, who died before she was born, Dern became the only Bobbi, the only grandmother, the girl ever knew.
Sniffles ensued – Dern included.