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From heroin to heroine: Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of "Wild" author Cheryl Strayed

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Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir "Wild" has become a swift, solidly built movie capturing most of its author's most interesting baggage stuff — the weedy tangle of regrets, the reckless bumper-car behavior borne of grief — while offering a rather different experience of what Strayed called "radical aloneness."

I can't unread the book, which I love. Therefore I can only offer my feelings about director Jean-Marc Vallee's film, a showcase for a pared-down and very fine performance from Reese Witherspoon, in relation to its source.

In 1995, Strayed left behind her life in Minneapolis, along with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, to embark on a 1,100-mile trek up the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border. Earlier that year, Strayed adopted her poetically apt last name over the one she came in with, Nyland. In the summer of '95 — alone, with a massive backpack and too-small hiking boots — she started walking, toward a truer sense of herself. The O.J. Simpson trial consumed America that year, at least the America on either side of the trail.

She was alone but never isolated; her demons joined her on the path. Memories of Strayed's recently deceased mother (dead of cancer at 45) dogged her. So did her wasted hours and days and months as a heroin user. Raised with a series of mostly terrible father figures in and out of her family's life, by her 20s Strayed had gotten used to obliterating that life as she was living it.

The Pacific Crest Trail required of her a kind of spiritual cleansing, if only because its extreme variances in climate (deep snow; hot, hot desert) daunted more experienced hikers than Strayed.

She encountered snakes, wild bulls, plenty of detours and surprises.

Like the book, the film, photographed with lightweight digital cameras by cinematographer Yves Belanger, captures what it's like to have lingering memories flooding your perception of the present.

As a writer, Strayed did not let herself off the hook. Her account, cleareyed but with a luminous pull, never fell into drippy "Eat, Pray, Love" territory of privileged self-actualization. Strayed did what she did, and she learned from it.

The film begins the same way the book does.

Six weeks into her solo hike, Strayed accidentally knocks one of her boots down a mountainside, and then — enraged — she throws the other one after it. From there, screenwriter Nick Hornby ("About a Boy," "An Education") creates a dense interweave of flashbacks to Strayed's childhood in rural Minnesota, her dropout heroin phase in Portland, Ore., her limited circumstances in gray, snowy Minneapolis.

Her loving mother is played truly and yearningly by Laura Dern, who captures the forlorn essence of someone who was, as she says, "never in the driver's seat of (her) own life."

Losing her mother in her early 20s, Strayed embarks on a series of relational car crashes. Husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) still loves her, and she loves him, but presented with forks in the road representing the familiar and the unknown, Strayed chooses the latter, always.

After the marital split, on her perilous hike up the trail, she meets stray hikers and occasional rides to the next town, some gregarious, many others vaguely or blatantly threatening.

The signposts of her travels are clearly marked on screen: Day 58 and so on. When a new, larger pair of boots arrives in the mail, picked up at a ranger station, it's like Christmas times 20.

Throughout "Wild," Witherspoon appears to be wrestling with her own instincts as an actress — and winning. She's such an innate sparkler, used to turning on the chirpy energy when the roles call for it, you wonder initially if she's able to disappear into a character underneath so many protective emotional layers. And then she does. It's a thoughtful, honest portrayal, and the acting is covert, not overt.

Although there are times when you wish director Vallee ("Dallas Buyers Club") would linger over an extended moment of reflection, well, it's a movie, and movies are supposed to move. Aren't they?

On the other hand, this is the chief limitation of a generally strong and impressive picture.

Screenwriter Hornby respects Strayed's darting flashback approach, the jumps between past and present, interior and exterior challenges. But Hornby's a quippy sort of fellow, and his brand of wit is a lot snappier, for better or worse, than Strayed's. Like the Danny Boyle film version of "127 Hours," "Wild" is extremely nervous about boring its audience with its protagonist's aloneness.

Still, Witherspoon and Dern are reason enough to see it. The star optioned the material and digs deeply.

Most valuably, I think, Witherspoon does the least acting of her career, and it works. Calmly yet restlessly, she brings to life Strayed's longings, her states of grief and desire and her wary optimism.

"What if heroin taught me something? What if all the things I did were the things that got me here?" she asks at one point in voice-over.

By the end of "Wild," three women — Witherspoon, Strayed and Witherspoon's interpretation of Strayed — are sharing the driver's seat.

"Wild" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language)

Running time: 2:00

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