At the theater’s side entrance, Fox Searchlight employees with iPads and radio headsets checked in those of us who don’t have our own IMDB pages. The most common question in the queue was “how did you get a ticket,” as folks swapped stories about how they knew Strayed, were part of the crew, or worked for this or that publicist or film studio or company that installed Cinema 21’s new seats. The crowd, which included the veritable who’s who of Portland, ranging from the mayor to Strayed’s literary peers Chelsea Cain, Monica Drake, and Jon Raymond, was decked in designer dresses, glittering necklaces, suits, and bow ties, proving that Portlander’s can indeed dress up when the chance to mingle with movie stars is involved.
Beginning around 6:30pm, the cast and crew began to pull up one-by-one in town cars. Strayed arrived after several local actors, practically glowing. “Reese and Laura and Jean-Marc Vallée today were calling this premiere my wedding, and it does sort of feel like that,” she said. “I get to sit in this theater with literally hundreds of our friends and community members watching this film about my life.”
Actor Laura Dern, who plays Strayed’s mother Bobbi, stepped out of her car to the sound of the crowd chanting “Laura, Laura,” before charming the press (one of whom gave her a box of Voodoo Donuts because she had mentioned the store in a previous interview) with her smile, a plug for Finnegan’s toys, and heartfelt praise for Strayed.
Next, director Jean-Marc Vallée responded to one reporter’s gruff question “what do you want me to take away from this movie” by saying, “I want you to feel in peace. I want you to celebrate human imperfection. I want you to hug your mom.”
Witherspoon arrived last, explaining that the cast and crew had pushed Fox Searchlight hard to have a premiere in Portland. “This is really a love letter to the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon—beautiful vistas—an incredible postcard about the life that people love here,” she said. Also, her favorite local restaurants are Pok Pok, Ava Genes, and Tasty n Alder.
The group then moved from one theater to the next, introducing the film. They finished in Cinema 21’s main theater, where Vallée took the mic screaming “Hello, Portland!” like it was a rock show. The leading talent walked down the aisle as Vallée introduced them. Instead of saving Witherspoon for last, though, he gave the honor to Strayed, calling her his new best friend. The audience rose for a resounding applause.
“There are people in this room who were with me when my children were born,” Strayed said. “There are people who loaned me money while I was writing Wild, so I could buy groceries. There are people I have known since they were two. There are people who ripped my manuscript to shreds in writer’s group. And I love all of you people.”
“I’ve been with this movie so many places, but this is the most glorious place of all, because it’s home, and as Dorothy famously said, there is no place like home,” she added, before telling the story of how the movie was made. (You can read about it in our interview with Strayed in our December issue.)
She concluded with a story about a man who emailed her to say that the movie gives her mother’s love the widest possible reach. “I can’t think of anything more beautiful,” she said, fighting back tears. “I had to lose my mom in such an ugly way, and what rose from that love is a thing of beauty.”
And indeed it was. Vallée's film follows Strayed’s memoir closely, starting with Strayed tossing her remaining boot off a cliff before cutting back to the beginning of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The footage of Oregon is spectacular, and the sound design is so thoroughly immersive and layered that it makes you feel like you’re on the trail just behind Witherspoon, gravel crunching below your boots, Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” stuck in your head (iterations of the song run throughout the film in an unusual and innovative way).
Vallée handles the many flashbacks with an economic grace, condensing scenes of sex and heroin use to rapid, arresting, almost subliminal flashes. While the necessary condensing of the plot lessened the emotional bite of some portions of Strayed’s journey, the film nonetheless left few dry eyes in the house, while also offering the quite hope that makes the memoir so powerful.
Strayed lingered in the lobby while many guests headed to 23 Hoyt for the after party. Witherspoon made a brief appearance, and Dern stayed well into the night, warmly chatting with any who approached her in the upper balcony. But it was clear whose wedding this was, as friends and family flocked to Strayed.
It looks like the millions Wild has already inspired are just the beginning. The movie opens at Portland area theaters on Friday. For more photos from the premiere, see our slide show at the top of this post.