Dec 19, 2014

A  trailblazing heroine.



Grade: B

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club)

Screenplay: Nick Hornby (an Education), from Cheryl Strayed memoir

Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Laura Dern (Rambling Rose)

Rating: R

Runtime: 115 min.

by John DeSando

“Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.” Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) strayed into the wilderness by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail from California to Oregon. This true story harbors truisms about lonely hiking such as “finding oneself,” “facing death,” and many more. Unlike many other hiking films, this one centers on a small woman who faces dangers few men have to, and she overcomes them.

Her experience varies as you might expect traveling 1200 miles over four months: she meets other women hikers, young men with randy on their minds, and some pretty scruffy hikers representing the lawless West. Besides dealing with these characters as fellow travelers and potential aggressors, Cheryl deals most often with flashbacks to her family, specifically her spirited and abused mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern).

Cheryl has the most challenges coming to terms with her early dismissive attitude toward her mother and then the ironically the realization that Bobbie was going to die early, for Cheryl had come to love her deeply.  The multiple flashbacks to her home life do not distract me, as they often do in lesser stories, because they are integral to understanding Cheryl’s transformation.

Among the multiple beautiful shots of the trail is one of a fox in the road amid snow. Cheryl hungers for companionship, but the fox ambles away. Although the sentiment is clearly allegorical, just the shot itself was reason to go on this arduous journey.

It’s a blessing the film does not emphasize the hiking, for the Mojave Desert among other locations would offer no pleasant cinematographic experience. The flashbacks provide the color; the locations provide the sometimes bleak bridges from the libertine she was (promiscuity and drugs) to the responsible woman she becomes.

The film doesn’t quite live up to its title, for most of her encounters are tame. Even the “wild” is largely scrub punctuated by lovely long shots of the Sierra Nevada’s.  But then, this biopic is about an unusual woman on an exceptional journey inside herself. That’s wild enough.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at