The nearly two-hour screen adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild could have been a bore. The book catalogues Strayed’s intensely internal trajectory as she evolves from a pained, drug-addled woman struggling during the aftermath of her mother’s death to someone fierce enough to walk with sandals duck-taped to her feet during a 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

But Wild, a gorgeously shot film featuring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, masterfully weaves the backstory through a series of flashbacks that reveal just enough information at the right times. It’s poignant and sad, but inspiring and full of hope all at once.

Witherspoon may not have been the common movie-goer’s obvious choice for the role, considering she is better known for lighthearted portrayals in films like Sweet Home Alabama, but Wild allowed Witherspoon to unleash her inner grit. Wild gave Witherspoon a chance to display her gravitas, but Witherspoon gave Wild life. The movie probably wouldn’t have been made without her. Witherspoon tells Deadline Hollywood:

“I just knew Wild would die in development. There’s too much in it that would have to be discussed, and would never be agreed on by all the people who decide what version to tell. So we financed development, brought this fully formed Nick Hornby script to several studios with the caveat we were not changing a word. Within a day, we had three major movie studios ready to make it.”

Without Reese Witherspoon, the movie Wild may never have made it to screen.

At Wild’s start, the character Cheryl is dangling her weary legs off the side of mountain, picking at a toenail that’s bloody and falling off, a casualty of too-tight boots. The boot falls off into the deep crevice below and, in infuriated panic, Cheryl hurls the other boot off the cliff as well, screaming obscenities into solitude-filled air. She’s mad at life, mad at loss, and upset at the dissolution of her marriage, which ended in divorce after Cheryl became a serial cheater.

Through flashbacks, we see Cheryl’s childhood, her poor upbringing with a fun and free-spirited mother who proclaims them rich in love. The mother sings and dances in the living room and attends school with Cheryl since the mother never finished her education.

The two have a pact to ignore each other in the hallway, and we see Cheryl’s mother late one night in the kitchen, reviewing her books and letting Cheryl know that she understands the desire to keep the two parts of her life separate.

At one point, Cheryl and her mother are driving in a car discussing James Michener, whom Cheryl considers lowbrow although the mother loves his writing. Cheryl tells her mother, “It must be hard for you, that I’m so much more sophisticated than you were at my age.”

The mother replies, “That was the intention, for you to be more sophisticated. I just didn’t know it would be so hard.”

Later, flashing back further, we see Cheryl’s abusive and alcoholic father and the night their mother stuffed Cheryl and her brother into a car to whisk them away to safety.

Wild catalogues the strength and resiliency of the human spirit.

We see Cheryl’s mother die and then meet a new Cheryl, with dark circles under her eyes, her intelligence applied to waitressing at a diner. We see Cheryl lying naked in crack houses, strung out from heroin, sleeping with nameless man after nameless man, until her ex-husband comes to rescue her from near death.

The catalyst for the solo trek was a pregnancy scare. Cheryl meets with a friend who looks at her with disgust when Cheryl admits she doesn’t know who the father might be. A hiking guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail captured Cheryl’s imagination and she latched onto it with hope, thinking perhaps walking a thousand miles in the wilderness would return her to the person she once was, the person her mother believed her to be.

And so she takes to the trail with a pack that’s too heavy. She walks and walks, learning to set up a tent, eventually thinning her pack, comically relinquishing an entire roll of condoms—and perhaps her promiscuity—while a seasoned hiker prunes her belongings, and burning pages of books that she already read.

Among the trail reads is the previously scorned Michener, with Cheryl perhaps trying to connect with her mother, all airs of sophistication flattened by the hammer of grief.

Along the trail, Cheryl revisits the dark places in her mind, breathing life into them. She wades through river crossings and treks through snow. At one point, confronted by a tall rock in a narrow crevice, she strategizes to throw her pack over and carefully shimmy down. After it’s done, she smiles. Maybe life’s sticky situations aren’t as bad as they seem. Maybe she can figure it out after all.

Later along the trail, Cheryl meets another woman hiker who tells her other, more seasoned hikers turned around because of the still-heavy snow cover. They couldn’t make it. Cheryl smiles again, understanding that she’s capable of so much more than she thought.

Wild is a story of redemption: a story of breaking open and grieving and then finding the strength to pick up and go again. It’s the classic hero’s journey, only wild solitude becomes the greatest teacher, the mind the greatest foe.

Cheryl Strayed’s journey challenges us: can we heal from the memories causing us the most pain?

It’s one of the few blockbuster movies portraying a complex female character, Witherspoon tells Deadline Hollywood. In it, we learn that sometimes the key to redemption is facing our demons head on. That pretending they don’t exist only causes more pain.

We see the incredible capacity of the human spirit to keep going when all seems lost. As the viewer watches Cheryl’s incredible transformation from recovering addict to hardened hiker, one can’t help but appreciate the capacity of the human body to rejuvenate.

Along the hike, Cheryl’s under-eye circles dissipate, the pasty glow fades and life returns. Her once-abused body has regenerated, and now hikes tens of miles each day in the backcountry wild.

The hike’s scenery reflects Cheryl’s evolution. The movie starts in barren deserts, devoid of life, much like Cheryl’s spirit, and ends in lush, green, vibrant Oregon, full of life and beauty. At the end, standing at the Bridge of the Gods, Cheryl’s hike ended but her new life had just begun.

What great challenges have you overcome in life?

Image by daveynin via Flickr

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