In popular culture, the road trip (or in this case, hiking trip) is synonymous with a journey of self-discovery. The road that Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) follows, on her own and on foot, is the thousand-mile Pacific Coast Trail.
Based on Strayed’s memoir and written for the screen by the prolific Nick Hornby (who has a knack for getting to the heart of the matter), Jean-Marc Vallée has followed up his ‘Dallas Buyers’ Club’ with a film that takes compassion as its guiding star and finds battered but unbowed spirit in the warts and all portrait of a woman coming to terms with how she got to be the person she is.
Still raw after the break-up of her marriage and devastated by the loss of her mother, Cheryl sets out on her trek not even certain within herself what her goal might be – other than to make it to the end.
Drug use and promiscuity had neither eased nor exacerbated her longing, so it is in the great outdoors that she seeks solace.
Her story is told in frequent flashbacks, the most significant of which reveal her childhood and the close relationship that she had with her doting mother (Laura Dern) – some of the movie’s most touching moments are when Cheryl, fretful and exhausted from her exertions, feels the presence of her mother, literally and in the form of a fox.
We are forever enmeshed in our own history, and it cannot be rewritten. Learning that we might be able to accept it without regret and understanding that resignation need not be defeatist is a reward of infinite bounty.
Witherspoon is fantastic in a role that is both emotionally and physically demanding, Vallée’s choice of music – Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ – adds incredible poignancy to Cheryl’s solitary, inner exploration, while Yves Bélanger’s camera captures some breathtaking images of the US west coast hinterland.
A gem of a movie, in which Cheryl discovers that ‘you can never prepare for the expected’.
~ John Campbell