Forty years ago, as a young man, I hiked many sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. In my scout troop we had a guy who backpacked the entire length of the trail but he did not do it in one fell swoop like Cheryl Strayed did. The accomplishment of such a monumental feat by someone not trained, experienced or wise in the ways of the wilderness is pretty impressive and at the same time completely foolish. Walking into the wild by yourself is an invitation to self reflection, a strong communing with nature and disaster. Watching the event take place for two hours in a comfortable theater at a ripe older age made me nostalgic until the first snowfall encountered.
This is a highly personal story that will strongly appeal to the navel gazers among the cinema going population. It will serve as a travelogue for those who have never been from the depths of the Mojave to the heights of the Sierras and it will depress anyone who has lost a loved one. It will also confuse those of us who lack the personal tragedy gene that would drive someone to wreck their life when a loved one passes unexpectedly. I cannot sit in judgement of a person’s emotional life, everyone is different in the way they cope, but this film left me empty at the experience that drove Cheryl to attempt this trip. I certainly appreciated the flashbacks that accentuated her relationship with her mother, but I was bewildered at how the level headed, bright young woman that she was when her mother is lost, became the bitter, drug addicted victim of serialized promiscuity, forsaking a man that seemed to truly love her. That it happened and that there was a reason for it I do not doubt, I just don’t understand any better as a result of watching this movie.
The story unfolds as Cheryl hikes the 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest trail and thinks back on the life that had brought her to this point. The flashbacks give us detail in the way she grew up and the warm relationship she had with her mother, but they do not clarify the path that lead her to the self destructive behavior in the first place and there is not a very clear reason why she choose this task as a way of closure and repentance. Maybe there is a moment of clarity or an epiphany that brings this sad Minnesota girl to the West Coast and the Sierra Nevada range of mountains, but without a context it felt like an arbitrary odyssey to set out on. Reese Witherspoon is effective as Cheryl, both in her moments on the trail and in her earlier life. The struggle of the wilderness is however the thing that brings out the most impressive parts of her performance. She plays awkward, fearful and frustrated at various moments. In two sequences you can fathom the possible human dangers that a young woman on a mission like this could face. The dangers from the wilderness get a little bit less attention but she does present a woman struggling with an obsession very clearly.
Laura Dern is the mother who inspires and maddens her. This is the third film I have seen her in during the last year or so. She has the reverse role of a mother losing her child in “The Fault in our Stars” and she is much more grounded and less showy in “When the Game Stands Tall“. As Cheryl’s mother, she shows us in brief moments the kind of love and fortitude that would make her a hero to her daughter. There is also an implied sense that her early life with the abusive father of her children is a source of some of Cheryl’s anger, but Dern never played the mom as a doormat. She was cautious and had limited options but as far as we can tell she ultimately did the right thing by her kids. Some of the film editing might make the performance more meaningful by contrasting the adult Cheryl with her younger self in some places.
Cheryl encounters a variety of obstacles along her path. Some of those are natural, some man made and many are self inflicted. The people she meets along the way are occasionally interesting but they rarely get much opportunity to sparkle and take focus away from the story we are watching. I suspect that the book delves deeply into some of the philosophies that are represented by the variety of fellow trekkers on her march. I am not at all surprised that the spiritual descendants of hippies are prevalent in the story. Yurt living, Jerry Garcia worshiping, iconoclasts populate some of the outskirts of civilization in the forest. Whether they are free spirits to be admired or outcasts to be puzzled over is not clear from the story. What is clear is that if you can look deeply into a Grateful Dead lyric or jam, or if dead poets and writers are inspiring to you, than you will get more out of this film than the rest of us.