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It's not hard for a movie like Wild to make you cry. Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has plenty of raw material to lean on: the death of Strayed’s mother (played by Laura Dern), Strayed’s resulting descent into heroin use, and the disintegration of her marriage. But Vallée pulls off a grander achievement: He conveys real catharsis in charting a woman (Reese Witherspoon) on a journey, scattering her memories throughout the movie in a way that manages to feel natural, rather than manipulative.

It has all the hallmarks of a weepy, clichéd tragedy-to-empowerment story. Following the loss of her mother, Strayed sets out to conquer the wilderness despite being a novice hiker. Her toenails fall off, she's harassed by sexually aggressive bow-hunters, and at one point she loses her shoes and trudges along in duct-taped sandals for 50 miles. Her mother's specter haunts her throughout, occasionally taking the (somewhat clunky) metaphorical skin of a playful fox.

Rather than simply having the viewer feel bad for Strayed, who is still wrestling with her demons as she pounds her body on a months-long hike she’s barely prepared for, Vallée and Witherspoon clearly want viewers to understand her. They make you viscerally connect with her sense of triumph and heartbreak as she makes her way through California and Oregon.

The film opens at the beginning of Strayed’s 1,100-mile trip, then occasionally dips into in scenes from her past. At first, they’re brief fragments, as if Strayed’s waving the memories off the screen, before allowing them to settle more fully later on. The death of her mother, Bobbi, weighs heavily throughout—and Dern is perfect casting for a challenging role, bringing dimension to a figure Strayed clearly regards as essentially magical. She dances, dispenses charming aphorisms, and cheerfully forgives the younger Strayed’s moments of arrogance and callousness.

It doesn’t come across as grating or cheesy that Bobbi’s flawless, both since we’re recalling her as Strayed’s memory of the recently departed, and because Dern still manages to make her seem haunted by the demons of her past even as she sashays around a cramped kitchen with a glowing smile. We also glimpse far darker portions of the life Strayed is trying to shed—fleeing an abusive father as a child, slipping into drug use and sex with random strangers after Bobbi’s death, eventually losing her nice-seeming husband (Thomas Sadoski) as a result. Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby’s biggest achievement is that none of these memories feel forced into the narrative—they sprinkle them around, fragmented and repetitive, early on, and expand on them later as Strayed goes deeper into the wilderness.

And what wilderness! Cinematographer Yves Belangér captures the varied landscapes of the Pacific Crest—desert, mountains, deep snow, thick forest—with necessary starkness. Wild never feels like a pretty postcard movie, since the trail has to represent something of an enemy to Strayed throughout, a challenge to be overridden and conquered. At one point, she comes to a daunting-looking pile of rocks, and methodically gets her giant hiking pack over it before maneuvering past it herself. It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, and a great example of the way that Wild builds emotional momentum. Strayed’s journey is a series of small victories that add up to something momentous. Hundreds hike through the PCT every year, but when Strayed gets to a planned milestone near the end of the film, she might as well be walking on the moon.

Though it’s set in 1994, Wild also does a tremendous job wrestling with an issue that feels more pressing than ever. Strayed is a woman endeavoring into long-distance hiking, a sphere utterly dominated by men, so much so that other hikers recognize her on sight simply because she’s the only woman writing in the trail logs. Throughout her journey, Strayed runs into skepticism, both audible and subtle. The film explores both the genuine threat Strayed could feel encountering aggressive men along the way, and the quieter, niggling sexism of a park ranger who wants to nab a drink alone with her or a friendly but patronizing farmer who can’t believe she’d attempt such a daunting trip without a man alongside her.

It’s subtle moments like that that make Wild work so well. Watching Strayed feels like a victory, but a soft, internal one that doesn’t need to be cheered with a swelling orchestra or soaring imagery. Vallée uses music beautifully throughout to signal Bobbi’s lasting presence and influence on her daughter, and Witherspoon is doing the best, most deft work of her career, just flickering her eyes with fear at the film’s tensest moments or flashing quiet smiles at her most triumphant.

Witherspoon has felt a little lost in the wilderness, career-wise, since winning an Oscar for her brassier but similarly soulful work in 2005’s Walk the Line. It’s hard not to embrace the narrative of Wild as Witherspoon’s own personal triumph too, especially given her investment in bringing Strayed’s memoir to screen. The real surprise is that the film isn’t just hers—this is no showy, glory-seeking performance, even though Vallée and Witherspoon take pains to depict the gross, punishing, physical toll of the hike on Strayed’s body. It’s a far smarter, more organic work that captures an emotional memoir without making it feel like a didactic tale of triumph over adversity. And that's a triumph itself.

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