Every journey does start with a single step and the trek to transform Cheryl Strayed’s memoir into the feature film “Wild” began with the inspired casting of Reese Witherspoon. The Oscar-winning actress brings an acting purity to the film that makes us feel the pain and the progress of each step her character takes.
Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” recounts her fall from emotional grace after the death of her mother. That fall is a devastating crash into self abuse through liquor, drugs and unemotional sex.
Her last hope is that during a 1,000-mile hike through the wilderness, she will find the good woman her mother raised her to be. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) smartly blends the physical journey with a travelogue of the pain and misery that took Staryed to her personal abyss.
Witherspoon has never been so stripped down — physically and emotionally — for a role. That was necessary because for much of this journey she is on her own, so the only way to get across the hope and frustration she’s feeling is through the physicality she brings to the role.
This is a brutally honest look at a woman trying to commit suicide one drink, injection and sexual encounter at a time. Witherspoon never backs away from the lowest low, which in turn makes her climb from the valleys of hopelessness to the peaks of possibilities.
Vallée also dusts the story with potential danger from all the creatures — human and animal — along the way. These are accent marks to Strayed’s trip both literal and metaphoric.
Equally as compelling is the work by Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother, Bobbi. She does not have the same amount of screen time as Witherspoon, but Dern continues to show that an actor of her caliber can take tiny scenes and give them monumental weight.
Without Dern, the film would have been lost in a muddle of angst. Even in the darkest moments, Dern plays Bobbi as a woman who would rather believe that even the worst thunderstorm will result in a rainbow and not a flood. Dern should be in the hearts of Academy members when in comes to Oscar talk.
But, this is a movie that starts with a strong performance by Witherspoon that only gets better through the movie.
Vallée offers a bonus as the film unfolds against a stark and beautiful background, which ranges from the emptiness of the desert to the rising majesty of the mountains. It’s not so subtle a reminder of where Strayed starts and stops her emotional cleansing, but it works beautifully.
It all comes down to Witherspoon being so willing to face the rawness of this story, which is supported by the brilliant light of optimism of Dern’s work. That’s enough to make this a trip well worth taking.