In a packed Oscar season, this is a wonderful little film that is going to sneak under the radar for most people.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose mother has recently died, causing her whole world to spiral apart as she self-destructs. With her life in ruins, she spontaneously decides to trek the Pacific Coast Trail, a 1100 mile route along the West coast of the United States, from Mexico to Canada.
What follows is essentially a solo movie, as we follow Cheryl Strayed along the trail, where moments and the encounters she has, make her reflect on her life and the choices she has made. This is very much your standard “finding yourself” film and it could easily have been no more than that but Witherspoon gives what I think is the best performance of her career here. I would never have picked her for a role like this, as she is definitely played against type, but like with Walk the Line, this unexpected casting has worked very well here.
Witherspoon is able to give Strayed real emotional depth and often with a look or expression, as usually there isn’t anyone around for her to talk to. The flashbacks give her character background in a meandering way, not necessarily in order, more the way your mind covers things when you are idly thinking. It gives it an organic, natural feel that, for me worked very well.
Complementing this is a gritty realism to the film that I found very refreshing. Witherspoon is presented as you would expect her to be in real life. When you are trekking those kinds of distances alone, you get sore, smelly and weary. The gritty realism paid off well, giving the film not only more depth but letting us take it more seriously. When you get off the beaten path and into the Wild (see what I did there), you can get lost, you can run out of food and water, you can actually die. Having Witherspoon come out of her tent salon fresh would have ruined things and here you get the grim reality of how much this trek is costing her physically. As someone who used to teach trekking, it was great to see it done right, with Strayed making all the typical mistakes that rookies so often do when they don’t take the time to learn first.
Other characters in the film are there only briefly, have their impact on Strayed and mostly move on. The exception being Laura Dern, playing Strayed’s mother Bobbi, who nearly steals the show in a lovely performance as Strayed’s damaged but optimistic mother. Beyond that, it’s a one woman show and all the better for it.
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