It takes a while to warm up to Cheryl Strayed, the heroine of “Wild.”
Even though she’s played by the ever-endearing Reese Witherspoon, Strayed seems almost comically unprepared for the mission she has assigned herself: a solo, three-month, 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest trail, from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border.
Her backpack is oversized and filled with unnecessary or useless items. Her hiking boots are too small, resulting in grotesquely bloodied feet and cracked toenails. And as we learn in flashbacks, Cheryl is on this journey of self-discovery because she cheated on her husband on countless occasions and became a heroin addict.
Even Cheryl’s name is off-putting. She changed it from Nyland to “Strayed” because she, well, strayed.
But the more time we spend with Cheryl, the more we learn about her back story, and the more we feel the change in this young woman’s heart and spirit as she refuses to give up despite challenges ranging from 100-degree heat to lack of water to heavy snow to cuts and bruises to a couple of precarious situations involving predatory men, the more engrossed we are in the story and the more we understand and empathize with her.
Thanks to the rich source material — Strayed’s memoir, titled “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”; a nomination-worthy adaptation from the razor-sharp Nick Hornby (author of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” and Witherspoon’s most complete performance since her Oscar-winning work in “Walk the Line” nearly a decade ago, “Wild” joins “127 Hours” and “All Is Lost” on the top rung of individualist-survival movies.
Witherspoon is in her late 30s, and Strayed was 26 when she embarked on her hike in the mid-1990s. Laura Dern, not even 10 years Witherspoon’s senior, plays Cheryl’s mother Bobbi in flashback sequences, and while the lack of age disparity is a little jarring at first, Dern is so warm and tender and wonderful as a mother who radiates positivity despite all the setbacks she’s endured, the performance triumphs.
As Cheryl stumbles out of her motel room on Day 1 of her hike, nearly felled by the weight of her oversized backpack and telling herself she can quit any time, director Jean Marc-Vallee (“Dallas Buyers’ Club”) quick-cuts to fleeting glimpses from Cheryl’s past — her mother dancing in the kitchen, a needle penetrating Cheryl’s skin, one of Cheryl’s numerous sexual encounters, Cheryl’s husband (Thomas Sadoski from “The Newsroom”) screaming at her. Eventually we get fleshed-out sequences in which we revisit those finger-snap quick images and find out what was happening at the time. It’s a technique that captures the near fever-dream challenges of the hike, but it also grows tiresome by the one-hour mark.
Also, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could).” Ugh. The worst song in the Simon & Garfunkel catalog. One of the most annoying songs in pop history. I lost count of how many times we hear the opening bars of “El Condor Pasa,” or someone humming the chorus, or an echo-tinged snippet of the song. Rarely has a recurring music cue created such a case of cinematic Tinnitus. But maybe that’s just me and how I feel about that song.
Everything else about “Wild” is spot-on. Cheryl is one of the very few women attempting to hike the trail solo, and she finds herself in strange situations with men, from the friendly soul she spots bathing naked to a farmer who’s not exactly what he appears to be, to a couple of hunters who act as if they watched “Deliverance” too many times. There’s a funny interlude with a freelance journalist (Mo McRae), who insists on calling Cheryl a “hobo.”
Laura Dern should get best supporting actress consideration for her performance as Bobbi, who escaped an abusive marriage, raised her two children as best she could, returned to college when her own daughter was in school and refused to stop smiling — even after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in her 40s.
As for Witherspoon, there’s not a shred of her America’s Sweetheart persona in this work. She strips naked, literally and otherwise, in a raw, brave performance. We understand Cheryl’s pain over her mother’s fate, but a lot of young people experience a tragedy and don’t use it as a diving-off point to becoming a heroin-addicted nymphomaniac. The film makes no excuses for Cheryl’s behavior — nor does Cheryl. She realizes the pain she’s caused to herself and to others. Witherspoon does a beautiful job of subtly showing the growth in this woman.
Cheryl’s amazing trek wasn’t a self-indulgent exercise in finding herself. It was a suicide prevention walk.
Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Nick Hornby, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.