In "Wild," Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a damaged woman who shoulders a backpack and hikes 1,100 miles alone in search of an epiphany. Geographically, she's navigating the famous Pacific Coast Trail, which runs through the American West from Washington to California. Culturally, however, she's in nearly uncharted territory as a rare female among the many male writers who have tried to find themselves on the road.
Strayed, whose 2012 memoir became the basis for "Wild" (and whose surname is her own invention), cuts a complicated but recognizable figure. She's a college-educated urbanite living happily among her kind when a traumatic event triggers a self-destructive impulse. When Strayed's husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), discovers that she's been shooting heroin and sleeping with nearly any willing soul, he divorces her. A pregnancy, father unknown, comes as a wake-up call; a book on the Pacific Coast Trail comes as a sign. "I'm going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was," Strayed tells a friend.
Strayed's mother, Bobbi, is played beautifully by Laura Dern in several understated but moving flashbacks. We see Bobbi as a single mother who fled an abusive husband yet still greets the world with good cheer, a disposition that irritates Strayed to no end. It might be this very problem that Strayed is trying to resolve on her journey. Perhaps if she suffers enough -- lips parched, stomach growling, toenails peeling away -- she will finally grasp her mother's wisdom.
Witherspoon is more convincing as the amateur hiker (fellow travelers dub her overstuffed backpack "The Monster") than as the self-hating hipster, but director Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") and writer Nick Hornby ("An Education") merge the two personas by deftly cutting between past and present. The issue of sex remains constant: It can be a promise (cute townies) but is more often a threat (leering hunters, besotted rangers, suspiciously good Samaritans). Strayed's unusual sexual past implicitly complicates every encounter.
It's all part of what Strayed seeks to escape as she pushes on, day after day. At one point, three young hikers, having noticed her name in the sign-in logs, approach Strayed and tell her, "You're our hero!" To her surprise, they are all men.