Trail fix

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Wild, bio-based ad­ven­ture drama, rated R, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3 chiles Henry David Thoreau knew what he was do­ing. In Walden, he wrote, “I went to the woods be­cause I wished to live de­lib­er­ately, to front only the es­sen­tial facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” Twenty-six-year-old Ch­eryl Strayed, on the other hand, an in­ex­pe­ri­enced hiker and cam­per, de­cided almost on a whim to strap on a back­pack and hike 1,100 miles of the chal­leng­ing Pa­cific Crest Trail, which stretches from the Cal­i­for­nia desert on the U.S./ Mex­ico bor­der, through the snowy Sierra Ne­vada, and all the way up to Canada. Years later, Strayed com­posed a mem­oir re­count­ing that jour­ney, and it be­came a widely ac­claimed best­seller in 2012.

This mov­ing, ruggedly beau­ti­ful adap­ta­tion of Strayed’s book — di­rected by Jean-Marc Val­lée ( Dal­las Buy­ers Club), with a screen­play by Nick Hornby (au­thor of High Fidelity and About a Boy), and star­ring Reese Wither­spoon — seems des­tined for sim­i­lar suc­cess. The per­for­mances are strong, nat­u­ral, and grounded. Val­lée and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Yves Bélanger cap­ture breathtaking scenery and set­tings with deft cam­er­a­work and rely largely on nat­u­ral light, with some­times lu­mi­nous re­sults. Much like Strayed’s orig­i­nal writ­ings, the sto­ry­telling is hon­est, vivid, and non­judg­men­tal — you get a pretty good sense of what it would’ve been like to plod along that trail with her. It’s also a plea­sure to watch a fe­male-cen­tric film with a happy end­ing that doesn’t in­volve a man, a child, or a job.

West Coast trails are a far, far cry from the red car­pet, and you’ve never seen Wither­spoon look­ing so un­var­nished and gritty. It’s prob­a­bly dif­fi­cult to make her look unattrac­tive, but she ap­pears here glam­our-free. She digs deep and com­mits to the role fully — scream­ing, cry­ing, curs­ing, and eat­ing oat­meal with her fin­gers. She grasps that we don’t need to like Ch­eryl, but we need to un­der­stand her. Head­ing up the solid sup­port­ing cast is the won­der­ful Laura Dern, who plays Ch­eryl’s beloved mother, and Thomas Sa­doski ( The News­room) as Ch­eryl’s soul­ful, sad-eyed ex-hus­band. And watch for the real-life Strayed in a cameo. She’s the pickup-truck driv­ing woman who drops Ch­eryl off at the start of her jour­ney and wishes her good luck.

As Ch­eryl hikes, we learn more about her through a se­ries of flash­backs and flick­er­ing rec­ol­lected images. Her fa­ther was an abu­sive al­co­holic. Her mother skipped col­lege, raised two chil­dren on her own, and died pre­ma­turely from can­cer at age forty-five. In the wake of the dev­as­tat­ing loss of her mother, Ch­eryl be­gan us­ing heroin and en­gag­ing in anony­mous sex with mul­ti­ple part­ners. Her mar­riage im­ploded (at the time of the di­vorce, she changed her last name from Ny­land to Strayed be­cause of her in­fi­deli­ties).

Now she’s a woman alone in the wilder­ness, and Wither­spoon cap­tures both her vul­ner­a­bil­ity and the im­pres­sive for­ti­tude she had to sum­mon. She faces hunger, thirst, in­jury, un­ex­pected weather, and preda­tory men. I ap­pre­ci­ated the way the film pointed out an un­for­tu­nate fact of fe­male ex­is­tence: Even in an equal­iz­ing place like the wilder­ness, we are not al­ways seen or treated equally, and at times our safety de­pends en­tirely on men’s im­pulses and bet­ter na­tures.

The film does have its short­com­ings. Some el­e­ments are a lit­tle too on-the-nose, par­tic­u­larly the sound­track’s use of the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any­more” and (re­peat­edly) Si­mon & Gar­funkel’s “El Con­dor Pasa” and “Home­ward Bound.” The quotes Ch­eryl writes in the hiker registries at var­i­ous points along the trail are both nar­rated and dis­played on­screen, re­mind­ing us of how poignant they are. Ch­eryl’s flash­backs work bet­ter on the page than the screen. They aren’t chrono­log­i­cal, which is fine, since mem­o­ries rarely re­turn to us in or­der, but some are re­dun­dant and stall the story’s move­ment.

By way of ex­plain­ing what mo­ti­vated Ch­eryl to hit the trail, the film of­fers up vague woo-woo-ish sen­ti­ments like “it’s how to find your best self,” “I’m gonna walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was,” and “I’m go­ing to put my­self in the way of beauty.” Yes, yes, we get it: Ch­eryl had to lose her­self in the ac­tual wilder­ness to find her way out of the fig­u­ra­tive woods. Th­ese voice-over re­minders make the film feel con­structed and pack­aged — es­pe­cially jar­ring in a film about an ex­pe­ri­ence that was so or­ganic, un­pre­dictable, and, well, wild. But, re­ally, this is a film about a flawed in­di­vid­ual seek­ing re­demp­tion. It wouldn’t be right for it to be per­fect.

— Lau­rel Glad­den

She dwelt among the un­trod­den ways: Reese Wither­spoon

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