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As I was leaving a recent screening of Jean-Marc Vallee’s new drama Wild, based on the memoir’s of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) and her 1994 thousand-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, I overhead a fellow critic saying, perhaps both as compliment and criticism, that if he were a 19 year-old college girl this would be his favorite movie ever. A tongue-in-cheek statement, to be sure, but one that speaks very strongly to the strength of emotion that young women will likely feel as Strayed’s journey unfolds, as well as the empowering quality that resonates by the film’s conclusion.

Like Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, Vallee’s movie takes as its subject the true life story of a young person who attempts to find themselves by breaking from the comforts of modern life and immersing themselves on a journey across the American wilderness, though Strayed was fortunate enough to survive her trek. The screenplay, by acclaimed English writer Nick Hornby, does a fine job of allowing the audience glimpses into her life and thoughts, through first-person voice-over as well as flashbacks into her past. We see how her single mother (the always brilliant Laura Dern), struggled to raise her and her brother following a separation from their abusive father, how her mother’s premature death from cancer tore her life apart—sending her into a downward spiral of drug and sex addiction that destroyed her marriage to her loving husband (Thomas Sadoski), and led her to embark on her lone hike as a means of coming to terms emotionally with her past trauma.

If this all sounds like the kind of melodramatic material of so many female-centric pictures, that’s because it kind of is. However, I still found myself enjoying Wild more than I expected. No small reason for this is due to some really great acting from Witherspoon, arguably the finest work of her career. She gives a gutsy lead performance in a role that’s both physically and emotionally demanding, but that she pulls off with equal measures strength and vulnerability. She finds just the right notes for every scene involving her encounters with strangers on her hike; from comedic scenes with fellow travelers, a friendly pair of husband and wife farmers, to less-friendly, threatening hunters—while a scene late in the film in which she meets a tall, dark, and handsome type who she shares a night of intimacy with makes for nice romantic interlude.

Wild makes for a fine showcase for the directorial confidence of Vallee, whose Dallas Buyers Club from last year impressed many, though despite some strong acting and the important subject matter I found was ham-strung by a sophomoric script which relied on easy-sentimentality. Working with material better suited to his sensibilities he continues to prove a talented journeyman behind the camera, aided greatly by Yves Belanger’s rich cinematography. Some may find the resolution of Wild to be a little quaint given the film’s length and some of its more heavy moments, but, as Strayed discovered in real-life, it was her journey that mattered more than the destination. In the end, Wild proves to be an enjoyable and moving one to embark on.

Watch the trailer for Wild

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