You would need to have endured some serious trauma to consider a hike down the entire western seaboard of the United States as a suitable source of redemption and actualisation (I suppose that’s the phrase).
Sure enough, it is established early on in Jean-Marc Vallée’s self-help epic that Cheryl Strayed, author of the source memoir, lived with a mother who read hunks of Erica Jong out loud while playing endless Leonard Cohen. No wonder she turned to heroin, casual sex and, ultimately, pointless hiking.
That's unfair. Strayed's torment seems sincere and Vallée, the efficient Canadian director of Dallas Buyers Club, has made a pretty, well-acted reverie of her popular book. Reese Witherspoon, whose career looked to be juddering, works hard at insinuating nuances into a linear tale of moral reinvention. Screenwriter Nick Hornby, by shuffling early events towards flashbacks, seeks to make that linearity a bit curlier.
As the film tells it, Strayed was a smart kid who went off the rails at college and then became further disturbed when her mother (Diane Lane) died. Eventually, she ended up in the sort of relationships that drive you to class-A drugs without seriously disrupting your hair-do.
Strayed elects to walk the Pacific Crest Trail – which stretches from the Mojave Desert to the border between Oregon and Canada – as a route to self-discovery, higher being and all that stuff. Initially, she falters: her boots are too small; her rucksack is too large. But, with the help of fellow hikers, she eventually gains momentum.
The film is eerily similar in shape to last year's excellent, under-valued Tracks. But that tale from the Australian outback was less encumbered with matchbook aphorisms and cod-philosophical baloney. It's nice that Strayed deposits a few lines of verse in each stop along the way, but she could surely have tried to move a little further from My Big Book of Overly Literal Quotations ("Miles to go before I sleep." Really?).
Still, she does show real bravery when, encountering a bunch of hippies mourning Jerry Garcia’s death, she resists the temptation to run screaming into the wilderness. Now, there’s a character-forming experience.