For reasons that are perhaps understandable, stories about women finding themselves — or their voices, or their inner courage, or any number of things that are apparently very easy to mislay — are big business. But even if Cheryl Strayed's hugely successful 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail fits the classic self-discovery template perfectly, it's at least lively and entertaining. This account of the author's 1,100-mile trek up the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to Washington State — a trip she took alone, in 1995, as a way of coping with her mother's untimely death and the fact that her own life had gone seriously off the rails — works both as a highly descriptive piece of travel writing and a supremely candid, and often very funny, running interior monologue. As effortlessly likable as the book is, though, the chances of messing up the movie version were great: How do you dramatize a story that essentially consists of walking and thinking — breathtaking scenery notwithstanding?
Jean-Marc Vallée pulls it off in Wild, in which Reese Witherspoon, as Strayed, faces down wilderness horrors like egg-frying heat, mountain passes clogged with snow, ill-fitting boots, and tiny, slippery frogs that come out in droves at night. This woman-vs.-nature battle is, of course, really a woman-vs.-herself conflict in disguise. Although she's joined by the occasional fellow traveler, the Strayed of Wild is mostly alone, and deeply so, with the memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who died a few years earlier at age 45. In the time since, Strayed had done a marvelous job of messing up her life: She's had a careless and dangerous fling with heroin, and she's still feeling sorrow over a failed marriage. Though she isn't a particularly experienced hiker, Strayed somehow decides her best move is to fill up a backpack that will end up being bigger and bulkier than she is and head out into the cruel and beautiful natural world, a place where surely she'll be able to find herself, or something. As she says in one of the movie's many instances of introspective voiceover, "I'm gonna walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was."
That kind of signpost language is best used sparingly, and thankfully, Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby keep it to a minimum. Mostly, they just show us this half-bumpy, half-glorious journey through Strayed's eyes, and their vision is by and large faithful to her book. Both open with Strayed in mid-hike, having just scaled a challenging ridge. She stops to rest at the top and removes her boots, revealing bloodied socks beneath — she has learned, too late, that her footgear is a size too small. Still, it's better than nothing, which is what she has after her backpack topples, sending one boot first flying and then bouncing down the steep hillside, never to be seen again. She throws its mate, now useless, after it, screaming with rage: She's furious at her stupid boots, but even more furious at the stupid universe for taking her mother away.
Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria) knows how to transform that futile fury into a kind of dramatic energy; the movie, like its heroine, is always moving forward, pausing occasionally for a reflective flashback. Strayed recalls her life with her now ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski) and relives their parting in an excruciating whisper of detail — their goodbye is heavy with sadness, like a fat raincloud that just refuses to break. She thinks back on her mother, who raised her and her brother (Keene McRae) alone after finally getting the courage to leave her abusive husband, the children's father. Dern is a wonderfully sympathetic presence in those scenes: She appears to be bathed in that idealistic glow we create around loved ones after they're gone, as if these imaginary molecules of light were our last hope of keeping them from slipping away into mere memories.
Strayed does an awful lot of thinking on that trail, but she does a lot of looking too, and Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger are scrupulously alert to her surroundings: They show us a moon rising above the trees like a miraculous, glowing biscuit. We also get one of those snowy landscapes topped by something that's either a bowl of feathery clouds or a misty, mythical-looking faraway mountain range — either way, it's astonishing. (The picture was shot mostly in Oregon, as well as in the Mojave Desert.)
Both the material and the setting seem to have shaken something loose in Witherspoon (who is also one of the movie's producers): She's moved further away from those uptight, humorless romantic-comedy cuties she played in the mid 2000s and more toward the breezy, blunt, self-determined characters of her early career, like the one she played in Matthew Bright's crazy-sordid modern fairytale Freeway. With her little acorn face — even as she nears 40, she still resembles one of those fairy nymphs in an old children's storybook, the type who wear upside-down bluebells as hats — Witherspoon is generally in danger of overdoing her plucky adorableness. But in Wild, she kicks any potential cuteness right over the ridge, just like that boot.
As Strayed, she's alive to the wonder of it all — not just to the gorgeous harshness of the landscape around her, but to the weirdos and generous souls she meets on her long solo trek, among them a nerdily enthusiastic writer for the Hobo Times (played, with goofball wit, by Mo McRae) and a gentle-souled nouveau-hippie (played by Michiel Huisman) who engages her in a tender sexual adventure. For the time being, Witherspoon — sometimes a wonderful actress and sometimes a maddening one — has found herself. Maybe it's the kind of happy accident that comes about only when you don't know you've been lost. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Nick Hornby. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman and Mo McRae. Opens Friday, December 12, at Plaza Frontenac.