“Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling account of hiking across the Pacific Crest Trail, provides a lot of tearjerker material: Traumatized by her mother’s death, Strayed turned to drugs and promiscuous sex, destroyed her marriage, and fled to nature in search of catharsis. It comes as no surprise that the movie version, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from a script by British novelist Nick Hornby, hits plenty of poignant notes.
But despite the powerful elements of Strayed’s real-life experiences, “Wild” goes out of its way to overstate the built-in sentimentalism. Taking cues from the book, the movie alternates from scenes following Strayed — a hiking novice — struggling through the rough trails under a brutal sun, and flashbacks to the experiences that sent her there.
These include her final days with her sweet-natured mother (Laura Dern) and the grimy downward spiral of heroin and infidelity that made her situation even worse. The result is two solid movies at odds with each other: a gentle ode to the wonders of the natural world and a more traditional account of a nervous breakdown.
At its center, however, Witherspoon excels as a committed figure battling through each rough day. So long as the action remains on the trail, Vallée stages an engaging survivalist tale that plays up the resolve on Witherspoon’s face, complemented with the rich visuals of an expansive landscape.
In the opening minutes, we witness the reluctant hiker rip off a loose toenail and accidentally knock her shoe down a ravine before erupting in a fit of frustration. Yet somehow she presses ahead, and as she reaches each new stage of her journey, “Wild” develops an emotional core from the payoffs of her recurring commitment. Making friends along the way — and even finding a few tentative romantic interests — Strayed literally rises from the dust to find a new path.
Which is why it’s so discouraging whenever the movie shifts to the past. The pratfalls of the “cancer movie” cliché come into play with tearful bedside moments as Strayed watches her mother fade away; other flashbacks to her childhood, when she coped with an abusive father, feel extraneous. The movie gives us too much information when the journey speaks for itself.
But even the contemporary scenes meander in parts, as hikes have a tendency to do, with throwaway moments including a random roadside encounter with a pushy journalist and another loose thread involving a possible sexual assailant in the woods. However, as with “Dallas Buyers Club,” Vallée laces his conventional plot with snazzy music cues (Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” resonates particularly on several occasions) that smooth over a lot of the bumps along the way.
If nothing else, “Wild” offers a first-rate advertisement for the purifying abilities of the great outdoors. (PCT enthusiasts are likely to be pleased.) Cinematographer Yves Bélanger develops a rich green-and-brown palette to match the lyrical relationship that Strayed develops with her surroundings.
The synthesis of the movie’s visual allure and small moments illustrating its protagonist’s revelations provide “Wild” with a sincere foundation. One fleeting shot, when Strayed wakes up to find a horde of frogs hopping about her sleeping bag, registers with far more emotion than any given flashback. Even the on-the-nose symbolism of a starving fox that Strayed encounters on her travels is just subdued enough to work.
“Wild” is so enamored with its setting that the story can feel like an intrusion. The journey is much more compelling than the reasons behind it. There’s little in the way of shock or surprise about the drama that put Strayed on the trail, but the same could be said about the reasons for making a movie about it.
A version of this review ran during the Telluride Film Festival. “Wild” opens this Friday.