With demons in her head and a pack the size of a small mountain range on her back, Cheryl Strayed hikes more than a thousand miles to quit her self-destructive ways and come to terms with her mother’s death in “Wild.”
Tame in tone and weakened by flashback (and voicover) overload, this adaptation of Strayed’s memoir isn’t the powerful personal journey it should be. But it qualifies as an absorbing adventure with effective performances and striking scenery. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) from a screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby, the 1995-set film is an episodic outdoor solo trek in the vein of “Into the Wild” and the recent “Tracks.”
Reese Witherspoon – playing the type of anguished redemptive protagonist that tends to translate into Oscar recognition – stars as Strayed, an aspiring Minnesota writer who tailspins into drug abuse and empty sex after her 45-year-old mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), dies of cancer.
To rediscover herself, Cheryl decides to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail the 1,100-mile route from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. An inexperienced hiker, she sets off with a ridiculously overstuffed backpack (a running joke) and undersized boots, but also determination and poetry books.
The film chronicles Strayed’s 94-day hike, beginning in the middle when she loses a boot and a toenail. She also faces a rattlesnake and dehydration. She encounters numerous people, most male, and – with one or two scary exceptions – all are decent.
Flashbacks unfolding in Cheryl’s mind, meanwhile, transport viewers into her past, including Bobbi’s struggles (she left an abusive husband) and her devastating death. Cheryl’s marriage collapsing also is key.
As with “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” the film’s emotional punch occurs on the surface. Vallee doesn’t adequately explore his characters’ deeper desires and fears. Despite the film’s title, he generally plays it safe. A romance Cheryl enjoys with a musician (Michiel Huisman) may indeed have happened, but it feels obligatory here.
Flashbacks, which consume about one-third of the movie, break up the primary narrative and nearly sink it. Dern’s character comes across as fragments in her grieving daughter’s memories, not as a compelling whole.
Yet the film is still smart, scenic, well-acted and emotionally real enough to satisfy as a female into-the-woods adventure and cinematic memoir. While Hornby’s screenplay isn’t without embarrassing lines (“I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was”), it offers a intelligent, embracingly imperfect heroine.
Witherspoon, though never quite shedding her movie-star quality, is charismatic and believable. Whether quoting Emily Dickinson, climbing breathtaking cliffs, swearing at a rock, or craving potato chips, she inspires us to go the distance with her.
The supporting cast also includes Thomas Sadoski as Cheryl’s caring ex-husband and the always fine Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s best friend, Aimee.
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann
Written by Nick Hornby
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes