(out of 5)
It’s 1995 and Cheryl Strayed is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, an 1100-mile adventure that has her marching in the hot sun all the way up the California Coast through Oregon and up to the Washington state border, the entire time looking to get her life back on track and earn forgiveness for years of self-destructive behavior. Her experiences walking, her physical suffering and a few dangerous encounters with men are the spine from which spill out complicated flashbacks, ones that tell us of her childhood with her exuberant mother (Laura Dern), a failed marriage, a promising educational career and the bad habits that led her to her current place. Her goal, she says, is to become the woman her mother raised, and we watch as Strayed (played here by Reese Witherspoon) challenges herself every step of the way to achieve it. Scenes of her struggling to put together a tent or cook food in the wild are the grit of this enjoyable melodrama, the opportunity for All Is Lost spareness pulled off by Witherspoon’s intelligent performance, then punctuated by moments of high tension that are unforgettable (she spends three months narrowly avoiding getting raped pretty much at every turn). What weakens the film and undermines Witherspoon’s sincere work is the high frequency of contrived poetic glory, with stilted dialogue and extended meaningful glances (complete with lens flare) that push hard to the point of begging for poignancy. It never comes off as dishonest but it is as frequently cheesy as it is engaging, less depressing than Into The Wild but not as resonant.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Cinematography by Yves Belanger
Production Design by John Paino
Costume Design by Melissa Bruning
Film Editing by Martin Pensa, Jean-Marc Vallee