The beginning of Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild” shows Cheryl Strayed at the top of the world yet screaming at the top of her lungs. She’s made it an impressive, remarkable distance on her own and overcome pain so unbearable she can’t even remove her socks. And yet she’s knocked her boot off the edge of this cliff she’s conquered, and she may as well be stuck in a hole.

Vallee’s film grapples with the inspiring nature of Strayed’s mission and the more harrowing, cynical nature of her mental adventure. Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed as a negative, bitter and sharp-tongued woman ready to quit at any moment, but her sheer resolve and toughness on the trail make her feel real, not just some strong female movie character conquering impossible odds.

Based on Strayed’s own personal memoir and adapted by novelist Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”), “Wild” tells the story of a woman who hiked 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail through California, Oregon and Washington. The journey itself is not spectacular or unusual for many who have tackled the trail before, but Strayed took it upon herself to make this journey after a series of personal hardships that left her far down the road in the wrong direction. This hike is a spiritual journey above all.

And yet “Wild” thrives on its more tangible conflicts and storytelling. Witherspoon’s performance is such a physical one, unencumbered by excessive voiceover narration or monologues. At the start of the trail, we see her methodically packing in quick, abrupt editing, then sitting on the ground and bending over backwards to even get her oversized gear on her back. Witherspoon gives Strayed a powerful presence but one that doesn’t hide her inexperience.

The film’s best moments are Strayed’s battles with nature and culture. Stopping for water and quick rest, she’s approached by two hunters on the edge of sexually assaulting her. At a rest stop, a ranger only opens up his station because he thinks he can get something out of it. “Wild” quietly and powerfully shows what modern women must endure. And yet her feminist victories are better communicated when she fearlessly gets past rattlesnakes, rivers and rocks all blocking her path. The movie makes a statement without needing to announce it.

“Wild” also features a strong performance by Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother Bobbi in flashbacks. Her story provides a different kind of visceral impact and serves as the crux of Strayed’s hardship. Vallee does however overstep in these more melodramatic moments. We see Dern as a spectral ghost in Strayed’s mind, weaving between trees and summoning demons in a way that’s not only overwrought, but takes away from the more tangible nature of Strayed’s struggles. And that every moment is also scored to Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pass” does not lessen the perception that Vallee is overdoing it.

But Vallee is actually smart to keep the film modest and genuine. “Wild” is not filled with travelogue beauty shots of sweeping Pacific vistas. It’s a film of muted colors and sobering close-ups that keep us close to Strayed and pack a greater emotional punch.

“If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve,” says Strayed quoting Emily Dickinson. “Wild” goes above and beyond but has the nerve to stay gritty, honest and true, and the whole journey is that much more fulfilling.

3 ½ stars


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