Kübler-Ross' "Five Stages of Grief" aside, the conventional wisdom goes that everyone grieves differently, the devil being in the details. For Cheryl Strayed, author of the Oprah-approved memoir "Wild," those details included binging on sex and heroin before hitting rock bottom and committing to a soul-cleansing, 1,100-mile, 94-day solo hike.
Now "Wild" has gotten the Hollywood treatment, with Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, Laura Dern as her mother Bobbi, Nick Hornby ("About a Boy") penning the script, and Jean-Marc Vallée behind the camera. Given that Vallée guided his "Dallas Buyers Club" actors to Oscars last awards season, one might well look cynically upon "Wild," and its lead and supporting females, entirely apparent Oscar bait.
That's certainly true, but "Wild" improves on "Dallas Buyers Club" with Hornby's literate, thoughtfully constructed narrative, one that hews more closely to the true story on which it is based. Add rather brilliant editing by Martin Pensa and Vallée (under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy) and expert work by Witherspoon and Dern, and you get a satisfying excursion, a secular but spiritual journey of self-discovery.
Strayed's long walk up the scenic Pacific Crest Trail (which runs from the Mexican border up to Canada) force her into dialogue with herself, though like Alvin Straight in the 1999 Oscar-nominated "The Straight Story," she gleans lessons from folks she meets along the way (call this "The Strayed Story"). Strayed needs to get her head straight after poorly navigating familial troubled waters, one a health crisis affecting her 45-year-old mother and the other the dissolution of her seven-year marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), a sympathetic victim of Strayed's sexual straying and disappearances to drug dens.
That Strayed comes across as an anti-heroine, a character not easy to love but rather pathetic, puts the story on solid ground for its many miles to go before redemption. Hornby and Vallée employ voiceover in the form of internal monologue, musical earworms (most notably Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)"), and frequent flashbacks that qualify "Wild" as a cinematic version of what Tennessee Williams called a "memory play."
Effectively, Vallée tells Strayed's story in a series of reveries, each surfacing to consciousness in a head cleared by lonesome travel.
The result is a reasonably rich character study deftly anchored by Witherspoon, who allows Strayed to be naive and fragile in matters practical (her overstuffed pack, a symbolic, Atlas-like burden, earns the nickname "Monster") and emotional ("When I'm done ... I'll have to start living. And I'm nowhere near ready") but brave enough to, at long last, force her way into self-knowledge.
"Wild" isn't perfect: Though a more palatable version of "Eat Pray Love" (still uncomfortably privileged in its heroine's ability to take three months off to find herself), Strayed's story can still feel pat, its wisdom at times resembling that of a fortune cookie ("I'm gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was. I'm going to put myself in the way of beauty"). Two glaring examples of product placement rankle, and opinions will vary on whether Strayed's ultimate epiphany is moving or eye-rolling.
Still, "Wild," in its essence, proffers a useful message that it's wise to clear the clutter every once in a while and especially at times of painful transition to take stock.
The sub-theme that artful culture can play a role in self-understanding (Strayed and Hornby name-check everyone from Emily Dickinson to Stevie Ray Vaughn along the road) serves as a stealth endorsement of the film that contains it.
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language. One hour, 55 minutes.