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Taming Demons With Something 'Wild'

Reese Witherspoon treks from the pits to the peaks

Rated: R

Run time: 1 hour 55 minutes

Stars: Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, Thomas Sadoski, Reese Witherspoon

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Somewhere in her fevered mind, writer Cheryl Strayed felt compelled to cope with her myriad emotional problems by walking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,663 miles from Mexico to Canada. What she saved in psychiatric fees she no doubt spent on shoe leather, but judging from this spectacular new film — epic in scope yet intensely personal in nature — Strayed's journeys, both topographic and interior, make for the kind of adventure it's better to read about … or watch in a quiet theater.

Reese Witherspoon, Wild, Movies For Grownups

Everett Collection

Reese Witherspoon makes Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild" journey, both topographic and interior.

Starring as Strayed is Reese Witherspoon, whose perky Legally Blonde persona has been left for dead with gutsy roles like this one. (Check her out in Mud or the upcoming Inherent Vice.

In her bestselling 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed recounted the unraveling of her life in the early 1990s: Following the lung-cancer death of her (nonsmoking) mother, Bobbi, at just 45, she sank into a pattern of heroin use and sexual promiscuity that ultimately scuttled her marriage. Those episodes are bravely re-created by Witherspoon and presented unflinchingly by director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), whose vision progresses from claustrophobic back-alley sex to breathtaking vistas of the high Sierra.

Strayed's sad history is told in flashback. We meet her in mid-hike, clumsily knocking one hiking boot over a precipice, cursing at the world, then looking around and realizing that if she tries to proceed barefoot life will be, quite literally, all downhill from here. Episodes along the trail evoke memories of her difficult childhood with an abusive father (who would soon abandon the family) and a high-strung but fiercely devoted mother.

As Bobbi, Laura Dern plays a surprisingly large role, appearing not only in flashback but also as an imaginary companion at critical points in her daughter's long walk. This easily could have been a thankless role; thanks to Dern's nuanced performance, however, we feel Bobbi's vital presence throughout, much as her daughter does.

Interior dialogues will keep an audience engaged for only so long, however, so it's a good thing this was no solo slog. Strayed encounters a scary farmer who turns out to be a pussycat, a couple of threatening hunters and a friendly guy she discovers skinny-dipping in a mountain spring. Then there's Strayed's former husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski) — surely the most understanding ex in history — who sends her care packages and encouraging messages along the way.

Despite those intriguing secondary roles played by an appealing cast, Wild is Witherspoon's film. Her eyes glued to the horizon, that prominent chin jutting defiantly forward, she leads us down the trail with gritty determination. We're happy to accompany her every step of the way.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.