For reasons that are perhaps understandable, stories about women finding themselves -- or their voices, or their inner courage, or any number of things that are apparently very easy to mislay -- are big business. But even if Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail fits the classic self-discovery template perfectly, it's at least lively and entertaining. This account of the author's 1,100-mile trek up the Pacific Crest Trail -- a trip she took alone, in 1995, as a way of coping with her mother's untimely death and the fact that her own life had gone seriously off the rails -- works both as travel writing and a supremely candid interior monologue. The chances of messing up the movie version were great: How do you dramatize a story that essentially consists of walking and thinking — breathtaking scenery notwithstanding?
Jean-Marc Vallée pulls it off in Wild, in which Reese Witherspoon, as Strayed, faces down wilderness horrors like egg-frying heat, mountain passes clogged with snow, and ill-fitting boots. This woman-vs.-nature battle is, of course, really a woman-vs.-herself conflict in disguise. Although she's joined by the occasional fellow traveler, the Strayed of Wild is mostly alone, and deeply so, with the memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). As she says in one of the movie's many instances of introspective voiceover, "I'm gonna walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was."
Strayed does an awful lot of thinking on that trail, but she does a lot of looking too, and Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger are scrupulously alert to her surroundings. Witherspoon, meanwhile, kicks any potential cuteness right over the ridge.