[Screen It]

(2014) (Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern) (R)

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Drama: Following her mother's death and the end of her marriage, a woman hikes a 1,000 mile trail in hopes of finding herself.
Following the death of her mother, Bobbi (LAURA DERN), Cheryl Strayed (REESE WITHERSPOON) fell into a downward spiral of drug use and anonymous sex, much to the dismay of her best friend, Aimee (GABY HOFFMAN), and especially her husband, Paul (THOMAS SADOSKI). After their divorce, Cheryl needs to find herself and thus sets out to hike the one-thousand plus miles of the Pacific Coast Trail by herself.

As she does so and occasionally encounters other fellow hikers such as Greg (KEVIN RANKIN), she ponders her past, including her relationship with Paul, her mother, and her brother, Leif (KEENE McRAE), as well as her descent into heroin use and promiscuity.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I have a friend who's often stated that one of her goals is to hike the Appalachian Trail. While that's not remotely anywhere near the top of my bucket list -- in fact, I'm pretty sure it's nowhere within the vicinity of my bucket, let alone within it -- I say good for her and more power to her goal. But here's the rub -- she wants to do it by herself.

While I'm guessing she could likely handle the physical demands (even with its 2,185 mile distance) and even the emotional ones of doing that solo, there are all sorts of dangers and perils to contend with. And I'm not referring to bears, mountain lions or being injured while alone, but rather the so-called "naked apes," specifically those of male variety, she could encounter.

I'm not exactly clear on the reasons behind the desire to make that arduous trek, but she certainly has a role model of pulling off something similar in the form of Cheryl Strayed. Following the devastating cancer death of her mother and a subsequent descent into heroin use and other bad behavior that ultimately led to her divorce, Strayed decided -- at the age of 26 -- to find herself and opted to do that while trekking 1,100 solo miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Nearly twenty years later, she published her account of all of that in the best-selling "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." Not surprisingly, it grabbed Hollywood's attention and arrives in theaters this week with the truncated title of "Wild." Starring Reese Witherspoon in the lead role (she also serves as one of the film's producers), the film is something of a cinematic kissing cousin to the 2007 pic "Into the Wilderness" (the Sean Penn directed movie starring Emile Hirsch portraying a real-life man who indeed ventured into the wild), even if they have decidedly different outcomes.

Both feature a non-linear storylines where flashbacks to the past interrupt the current storyline and help explain what happened in the past to motivate the characters to take such drastic actions. And like other such offerings, this one plays off the well-known saying and thematic element revolving around the journey of the trip being far more important and significant than the destination itself.

Of course, that's Strayed's goal from the get-go, and director Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") -- who works from the adapted screenplay courtesy of Nick Hornby ("About a Boy") -- slowly doles out the past motivation-influencing events (over the nearly two-hour runtime) that lead her there. We see her interaction with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski) who supports her trek despite what she put him through; her best friend (Gaby Hoffman) who's concerned about her changes, even if that's barely fleshed out; her somewhat estranged brother (Keene McRae); and, most significantly, her mother (Laura Dern) who was everything to the protagonist.

And there are interactions with people in the present, most notably a number of men who slide along the slippery and initially unknown scale of potentially being kidnappers, rapists or worse. To no one's surprise (especially since she's the only central character throughout), it's up to Witherspoon to carry the flick and she delivers a strong performance, even if I bought her portrayal of June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" a bit more easily than I do her playing the character here.

Surprisingly, however, I more easily accepted her portrayal in the flashback scenes (including the descent into drug use and promiscuity) than the contemporary hiking ones, but viewer reaction may vary along those lines. Dern is as good as usual, and Sadoski is decent as the conflicted ex-husband. Those playing the various men Strayed encounters along her hike more than adequately up the tension ante in terms of us not knowing how those particularly interactions are going to play out.

Along the way, various famous quotes from various walks of life show up on the screen (things the protagonist shares in log books along the way, all while taking co-credit with her more famous literary counterparts), all symbolic of the character's learning curve and growth during her journey. Some viewers will undoubtedly be moved to tears by that (as well as what occurs during those flashbacks to the past scenes), while others could find that reeking of manipulation (along with so-called Oscar bait for the film and its lead).

I fall somewhere in the middle of that range. I found it to be a solid piece of work, but only rarely did it sweep me up into any of its emotional moments (and I'm a sucker for films dealing with motivation and revolving around finding oneself after ending up lost in life). It's a remarkable life story that's decently brought to the big screen, and for that, "Wild" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 1, 2014 / Posted December 5, 2014

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