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December 5, 2014

Watching Reese Witherspoon slowly make her way along the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild reminded me strongly of Hard Way Home, which I saw premiere at last year’s Virginia Film Festival. But while Kori Feener’s intensely personal travelogue of her journey along the Appalachian Trail brought documentary immediacy to the experience of hiking your way to recovery, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of a similar trip gets the full Hollywood treatment. What it loses in raw, confessional verité it more than makes up for in a fascinating, flashback-heavy structure, assembled by screenwriter Nick Hornby and Dallas Buyer’s Club director Jean-Marc Valée, and built around a powerful leading performance by Witherspoon.

As Cheryl (Witherspoon) starts out at the Mexican border in the Mojave desert, she knows almost nothing about hiking. Her pack seems to outweigh her own slight frame, and she’s filled it with all manner of less-than-useful gear while missing essentials like the proper fuel for her camp stove. It almost seems impossible that anyone could even think to attempt to hike more than a thousand miles with so little preparation, but Cheryl is desperate.

It seems she’d lost everything. First it was her mother (Laura Dern). Then, in spinning out from that shock, she lost her husband (Thomas Sadoski). When she finally hit bottom, she cast about for anything she could hold onto. She came up with a guidebook to the Pacific Crest Trail, and her decision was made.

We do follow Cheryl on the trail, and there are some ups and downs along the way. But the real story is how the isolation and strain of her ordeal drives her to dig back into her memories. Valée — under his now-usual pseudonym “John Mac McMurphy” — and Martin Pensa do a fantastic job of editing her flashbacks. Sometimes they come in large, narrative chunks, but more often we get literal flashes. There’s an image here, a sentence there, slowly peeling back all her pain and regret like a broken toenail, leaving her raw but ready to start again.

Witherspoon is clearly trying for another awards-season sweep like she had in 2005 with Walk the Line, and she earns serious consideration with this performance. But the most important person in making Cheryl Strayed the woman she eventually became — other than herself, of course — was her mother. Dern’s supporting performance is instrumental in making Cheryl’s backstory work, and she deserves more than a little recognition herself.

It’s especially striking to compare Dern’s performance with her other work this year in The Fault In Our Stars and When the Game Stands Tall. In each case she plays some variant on the same optimistic and supportive wife or mother character. But where Bev Ladouceur was merely a dutiful wife to the great football coach, and Frannie Lancaster was nearly a Pollyanna of a mother to her sardonic, cancer-stricken daughter, Bobbi Lambrecht is far more textured and real. She smiles, nearly bouncing around the room, full of life and hope, but there’s a texture and a meaning to it. Hornby gives this human ray of sunshine some real pain to feel, and Dern shows how a great actress can blend both of these into a single, tragically recognizable person.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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