Personal memoirs often make a difficult transition to film. There's a wide gulf between the direct and unencumbered communication of a first-person written account and the massive team effort required to create its big-screen adaptation.
That task is further complicated by widespread familiarity with original source material. Author Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail reached No. 1 on The New York Times' bestseller list and became an Oprah Book Club selection. Wild discards that baggage largely through the efforts of star and co-producer Reese Witherspoon (pictured), who optioned Strayed's book before it was published, helped assemble a creative team led by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) and turns in what is surely her finest work in the film's central role.
Set in 1995, Wild recounts the author's struggles with grief over the early death of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and the drug and sex addictions that resulted in the failure of Strayed's marriage. Unsure how to proceed, she decides to take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert all the way to the Oregon-Washington border. The trail has proved daunting to even the most experienced long-range hikers. Strayed's unspoken goal is to confront inner demons and find herself in the wild so she can begin her life anew.
After a slow start, director Vallee finds his footing through the film's unconventional, almost stream-of-consciousness structure. Wild reveals Strayed's backstory gradually through intermittent flashbacks, a sometimes-overused device that seems natural here as an expression of Strayed's solitary thoughts over the course of her long journey. The film moves easily between past and present, and it presents Strayed's memories in a variety of styles that reflect their slippery nature — some are vivid while others indistinct or limited to sound. It gradually becomes clear how little Wild has in common with Hollywood-style redemption stories.
Surprisingly, Wild is no redemption story at all. Adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), the screenplay favors clear-eyed self-acceptance over absolution. The film offers no excuses for Strayed's self-destructive behavior but makes you care about her just the same. Credit for that also goes to Witherspoon. As Strayed, her appealingly underplayed performance has already begun to earn major award nominations. In one of the film's few missteps, Dern and Gaby Hoffmann (who plays Strayed's best friend Aimee) get too little screen time to do much with their characters. But the point is that Strayed truly must go it alone.
Strayed confronts all kinds of physical dangers on the trail, from feral animals to her own sometimes life-threatening lack of preparedness. (She initially brings ill-fitting boots and the wrong kind of cooking fuel on a trek with little margin for error.) But there's no getting around the fact that it's the men she meets on the trail who seem to pose the biggest threat. This should be troubling, especially in the context of Wild, but mostly it seems true to life. That's a sad commentary, and one that resonates all too well with today's frequent headlines about sexual assault. It also pulls Strayed's story from the confines of confessional non-fiction into the real world where it belongs.