The so-real-it-hurts actress Laura Dern is a movie treasure by now: in 'Wild', she's magically effervescent as a '70s mom, splashing in puddles with her small children and bravely facing abandonment, money woes and illness. She's the soul of the film and her cracked smile wrecks you even when her dialogue suggests a not-so-smart target audience. 'I was never in the driver's seat of my life,' she murmurs, one of her many huggable moments.
Unfortunately, Dern – only seen in flashback – isn't the main character in 'Wild'. Reese Witherspoon seizes on the role of Cheryl Strayed, spiritually broken and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail during the summer of 1995, with the talons of a hawk looking for prey below. Witherspoon is a seizer in general: few actors can be more appealingly uptight, and when the part is 'Election' or 'Legally Blonde', she's perfect.
But the character in 'Wild', taken from Strayed's memoir, feels wrong for her. Cheryl is a heroin addict, a cheater, a promiscuous waitress and a bit of a space case. Witherspoon can't do any of these things persuasively, but she can fume at faulty camping equipment or fumble with her gigantic backpack like a slapstick pro. Her director, Jean-Marc Vallée ('Dallas Buyers Club'), pushes her towards thoughtfulness, yet his atmospheric style runs counter to the obvious material. There are highly symbolic mountains to climb, highly symbolic streams to cross.
'Wild' works considerably better as a gender drama, as Cheryl comes into contact with different men on the trail, some helpful, others potentially predatory. Each time, her guard rises and you can actually see a person struggling with unhealthy instincts. In other scenes, a hippyish scent of solidarity is evoked (Jerry Garcia's August death is commemorated). But it'll take more than a Bob Marley t-shirt for us to buy the authenticity of this particular hiker, epiphany-bound though she may be.