Reese Witherspoon stars in this journey of discovery flick adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s Oprah-loved, best-selling memoir about her decision to walk to 1100 miles along The Pacific Coast Trail to rebuild herself and her life after her mother’s death and her self-destructive behaviour. 

Struggling to deal with her mother’s passing and the state of her life, Cheryl descended in to a tailspin of adulterous dalliances and heroin addiction. Her way out and back to a productive, healthy, happy life? Walking from Mexico to Canada along the PCT. A clear descendent of Sean Penn’s 2008 Into The Wild, Jean-Marc Vallee’s film mixes moments of wildlife drenched euphoria with harrowing episodes of survival truths and the equally tumultuous emotional turmoil taking place under the surface.

Witherspoon sought the movie rights as a star vehicle for herself and in this regard the movie marks her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line nine years ago. But where this could suggest an easy path to critical plaudits and commercial success Wild is far from the expected, and all the better for it. Taking Strayed’s memoir and ripping the superfluous story from the bone, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) piece together her narrative through out-on-the-trail episodes and moments of linear-flaunting flashback as she struggles under a pack other hikers nickname ‘the monster’, encounters the harsh realities posed by the elements, and the equally dangerous threats brought by people, in particular in one tense stand-off with a couple of rape-teasing hunters. 

Beginning with a spirit testing moment atop a mountain as a toe nail strives for its own personal freedom, in this case from the biggest digit on Strayed’s right foot, the moments of doubt, self-belief, rock bottom and self-impressed achievement paint the picture of a woman who faced up to her life and her experiences in a howl of defiance.

As Strayed, Witherspoon is delicate and nuanced, by turns vulnerable, volatile, proud and inspiring, and deserving of the Best Actress Oscar nom she picked up yesterday afternoon. Yet there are odd casting moments and production decisions: Laura Dern is stunning as Strayed’s mother but the two’s relationship is undone by their mere nine year age gap in real life which is never effectively disguised on the screen; and the staccato narrative forgoes any real sense of the duration of Strayed’s journey or the distance covered as deserts give way to forests and snow-capped peaks seemingly in the blink of an eye. 

With Vellee hitting a home run twice in a row now, though, Wild is engaging and inspiring and dodges any schmaltz or cheese that could have been too easily embraced. A beautifully performed and photographed tale of Strayed’s journey to become the person her mother raised her to be. 

Wild is out January 16 courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.