“I’m sorry you have to walk 1,000 miles just to …,” Cheryl Strayed’s estranged husband tells her before trailing off.
Then Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) literally trails off. As in, she attempts to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — from the Mojave Desert in California to the Canadian border — despite never backpacking before.
But this arduous journey is more about discovering what the “just to” part of her life actually signifies. “Wild” beautifully captures the desperation and liberation in Strayed’s soul-cleansing experience, which she wrote about in her 2012 best-seller of the same name.
Strayed had already strayed from the good-girl upbringing instilled by her single mom, Bobbi (a dynamic Laura Dern). After losing Bobbi to cancer, Strayed begins to drift. First into the arms of other men. Then into heroin.
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She arrives at a tipping point and decides, “I’m gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.”
Shouldering a bag almost too heavy to lift (a scene played for big laughs), the determined writer unburdens herself physically and emotionally as she progresses on a months-long trek during the summer of 1995.
It has been argued that the only true film genres birthed in America are the Western and the road movie. “Wild” is ripe with that pure, primal quality of the latter. It suggests that unencumbering oneself from society to retreat back into nature is the ultimate expression of freedom.
The fact that this transition is so agonizing for Strayed is what gives the road sections so much immediacy. The film begins with her screaming in pain while peeling off the bloody nail of her big toe after her too-tight boots have done their damage. Pretty sure the “Legally Blonde” flicks didn’t start that way.
The flashbacks enrich the emotional heft. They’re edited so keenly, juxtaposing her current hiking travails with key anecdotes and conversations in her past.
With her heart-shaped face and bright blue eyes, Witherspoon is one of the few 38-year-old actresses who can portray a high schooler during a flashback without looking ridiculous. Here, her interactions with Dern — depicted as an optimistic force no matter how many times life has kicked her around — reverberate with truth.
This is Witherspoon’s most accomplished performance. Buoyed by director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”), the actress has never seemed more confident or more vulnerable. As she embarks on the excursion, she keeps muttering, “You can quit any time.” She doesn’t repeat it as a way of opting out, but rather as a means of pumping herself up like a power mantra.
During one of the remembrances from her high school days, the brainy teen makes fun of her more simplistic mom for reading pop author James Michener instead of literary giant Flannery O’Connor. But years later she respectfully quotes Michener’s line, “We are never prepared for what we expect.”
That certainly applies to “Wild.” At face value, the bio-drama appears to be simply about a perky girl on a long walk. But the movie resonates in ways far beyond that. From her first hesitant step on that dusty California hillside, viewers aren’t just watching Strayed’s experience; they absorb the experience as if it’s their own.
Rated R | Time: 1:55