Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
Review: 4 stars (out of five)

Wild adapts Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 autobiographical account of a thousand-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, and the graphically screwed-up life that got her there. In a fairly accurate recounting of the book, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) juxtapose scenes on the trail with flashbacks to the painful memories Cheryl is either running from or finally, in solitude, facing.

Hornby seems an odd choice to adapt the book—he’s a middle-aged, British, male, urban novelist turning to the life story of a young, American woman in the middle of freakin’ nowhere—but he does a good job. The book slightly downplays or digresses from some of the life-or-death moments Cheryl faced on the trail in favor of a focus on the emotional crises at the heart of her walk. These are much more interesting, and vital to turning the movie into something other than the misadventures of a woman who really doesn’t know how to pack for a backpacking trip.

Reese Whitherspoon tackles the role of Strayed, and is quietly impressive. I’m more used to the overly made-up cartoon from the Legally Blonde movie, but a lean, stripped down Witherspoon bristling with determination and agonized regret is what we get here.

Wild02As good as she is, Laura Dern pretty much blows her off the screen as Strayed’s mother. Dead by the time the hike starts, Dern’s character appears in flashbacks shuffled out of order and spanning at least 20 years. Across those years, she is a woman facing fear and pain, rebuilding a shattered self-image and surviving as a single mom. She seems forever on the edge of giddy hysteria as she barely holds things together. And yet, she’s an optimist throughout. If there were only one reason to watch the film, Dern is it.

Vallée’s direction would be the second reason. He really makes the story move, though Strayed is lugging her enormous backpack at a rate of five miles a day for three months. Vallée does a great job of letting the story tell itself, juxtaposing where Cheryl is at on the trail with where she’s been as a dirt-poor college student, a bereaved daughter, and eventually a serial adulteress addicted to heroin.

If there’s one spot where the filmmaking fails, it’s the very end, where rather than using images and contrast to suggest conclusions, Vallée and Hornby give us blandly explicit summary voiceover from Witherspoon, finishing her hike and telling us what it meant and what came next in her character’s life. It’s thirty seconds of unsubtlety that can’t detract from the engaging two hours that preceded it.