Reese Witherspoon charts new territory in ‘Wild’

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Reese Witherspoon astounds whenever she portrays charismatic characters (Tracy Flick of “Election” and Elle Woods of “Legally Blonde,” just to name a couple) who resort to transformative or cathartic decisions when faced with demanding situations. Witherspoon’s ability to fill characterization up to the brim without overfilling it makes these roles delightful, rendering the replay value of her films almost boundless. This exclusive clique of characters can now welcome a sex-crazed, heroin-addicted divorcee by the name of Cheryl Strayed.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild” recounts Strayed’s absurd trek of 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to reconstruct herself after the emotional damages done by her divorce, her turbulent lifestyle and her mother’s death. Vallee, who also directed last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” cements his expertise at extricating fine and glorious performances from Witherspoon and the supporting cast without merely relying on their innate talents.

Adapted from Strayed’s 2012 memoir detailing her 1995 journey, screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”) creates a thrilling script scattered with alleviating moments of humor along the way. This exposition — combined with beguiling scenery and an equally talented supporting cast — unleashes Witherspoon’s full aptitude. Her performance is worthy of Oscar recognition.

Strayed, supplied with too many books and incorrectly sized Danner boots (a creatively inserted product placement), is over-prepared but under-experienced for her journey. Lugging a “monster” backpack that is almost her size, she constantly thinks of quitting every time she covers five miles. Along the way, she’s haunted by memories of her domestically abused mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who died shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer. This loss and misery lead Strayed to adopt reckless behavior, sometimes involving sex in alleys and heroin use.

Witherspoon plays Strayed with a wildness and passion veiled with a nonchalant attitude that only breaks when Strayed inevitably confronts her fear and insecurities. The film’s soothing sense of humor comes out whenever she encounters confusing plights, such as eating cold mush, losing a toenail or having fox-shaped hallucinations. The more these amusing instances occur, the less Strayed feels the burden of her separation from Bobbi and her husband.

Of course, Witherspoon wouldn’t flourish without an equally wild and vigorous supporting cast. Dern as Bobbi livens up the film with a positivity that is both eerie and luminous. When she can no longer endure an abusive marriage, Bobbi, marred with bruises, keeps a hopeful demeanor in her face as she drives through the night with her children. Every time nostalgia kicks in through verses of familiar songs and poems, Strayed begins to reminisce about her mother’s presence. Although Bobbi is the light that her daughter yearns to deflect, Dern’s maternal luster radiates a pleasant sentiment to the audience.

“Wild” shares similar themes and concepts with the earlier biographical drama film “Tracks,” which is directed by John Curran. Both films deal with self-discovery through traversing a vast and harrowing terrain. Although “Wild” is not as visually beautiful as “Tracks,” the former’s ambitious focus on Strayed’s conflict with herself overtakes the latter’s more meditative approach to its own heroine.

When it comes to a film that mostly consists of a person walking through emptiness, keeping the audience’s interest can be very difficult. “Wild” neither cuts to Strayed’s eventful discoveries nor dwells on the calmness of her contemplation long enough to bore one’s attention.

“Wild” does not necessarily live up to its name, which somehow reflects what people expect whenever they partake in something they think is crazy and physically challenging. They anticipate going out to the wilderness, exploring uncharted land and wrestling with an anaconda. But no matter how much reality may disappoint expectation, “Wild” encourages the audience to get wild. It’s always the most daring experiences that are enormously rewarding. With Witherspoon exemplifying how its done, a nomination for Best Actress awaits her in the Dolby Theater.

Wild is now playing at the California Theatre in Berkeley.

Contact Majick Tadepa at [email protected].