“Wild at heart”

While certainly not your typical action-heroine film, it’s hard to argue this falls outside our broader remit: movies about strong, independent women who strive physically to overcome the odds, even if in this case their opponent is more internal than anything. Witherspoon and Dern both find themselves nominated for Oscars thanks to their performances here, and it’s the kind of obvious portrayals that the Academy loves. A woman, Cheryl (Witherspoon) spirals down into a morass of depression, casual sex and drug addiction after losing her mother (Dern) to cancer, only to find herself while walking eleven hundred miles up the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave up to Washington State.

It’s a deliberately fractured narrative, beginning with Cheryl’s removal of a damaged toenail, then dropping back in time to her arrival at the motel from where she’ll start her hike, with here aim being “to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.” Immediately, her unsuitability for the trek is apparent, as she can barely lift her pack, and she manages only a couple of miles the first day and contemplates quitting. She perseveres, and as she marches on, remembers at semi-random, incidents from her life that brought Cheryl to this point: her divorce, shared moments with her mother before the diagnosis, etc.

I found the literal journey more interesting than the (likely too obvious) metaphorical one, perhaps because it has some personal resonance. Back at college, I set off on an overly-ambitious month-long solo trek around Europe, having never been outside the country before. I almost packed it in the first night, when my carefully-planned accommodation in Denmark fell through. But I persevered too, and it turned into one of the best months of my life, so I can relate to the transforming power of independent travel. On the way, she meets people good and bad, has experiences both miserable and ecstatic, and achieves a goal that’s much about the journey as the final destination. It’s beautifully shot, capturing the loneliness and splendour of the great outdoors, though never shies away from the negative aspects: I’m not sure if I finished the film with a desire to hike the PCT, or having crossed it firmly off my bucket list. Likely the latter, for we do not camp well. Our idea of “roughing it” involves a hotel which does not offer free wi-fi, so the prospect of having to filter water from a fly-blown puddle to survive is kinda deal-breaking.

There’s no doubt Witherspoon goes for it, putting everything out there on a project which appears to have been a labour of love for the actress. But I found Cheryl a largely unlikeable character, one whose problems are almost entirely of her own making, which left me struggling to empathize. Admittedly, I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to endure the loss of a loved one, with all my immediate relations still very much alive, so I can only imagine the impact it might have. This is where that fractured narrative perhaps works against the film, since there’s little sense of X leading to Y. One second, Cheryl is negotiating a tricky stretch of terrain; the next, she’s shooting up heroin in a dingy motel room. Obviously, it’s all connected, and I certainly respect the performance, yet this never fully engaged me as I hoped.

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée
Star: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae

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