Overview:  When a woman’s reckless behavior spurred by the death of her mother comes to a head, she decides to embark on a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Tail, inspiring others and healing herself along the way. 2014, Fox Searchlight Pictures, rated R, 115 minutes.

A Match Made in the Wild: Director Jean-Marc Vallée is beginning to build a reputation as someone who manages to evoke career turning performances from A-list actors.  Last year’s Dallas Buyers Club saw both Mathew McConaughey and Jared Leto taking the stage for performances that were both transformative and out of the normal realm of what we’ve historically seen from them.  This year the Canadian director pairs himself with Reese Witherspoon, where he crafts a film full of gorgeous shots of wilderness that becomes the temporary home for a woman who strips down her soul and bares it all in order to repair what’s been broken.

Thanks to Cheryl Strayed, who has stirred our souls by sharing her deeply personal story, to Vallée for bringing her from page to screen, and to Witherspoon for giving her life on that screen, we’ve all been given the opportunity to experience the power a well written, strong female character can have on an audience.  Studios, please take note; make more movies that feature women like Cheryl Strayed. She’s beautifully flawed, vulnerable yet strong-willed, and most importantly, unapologetically real.  Reese Witherspoon gives the best performance of her career as Strayed, infusing the character with just the right amount of both intensity and restraint as she embodies the triumphs and the stumbles in this woman’s journey with such raw fervor and realism that by the end, I feel like I am her, or at the very least that I know her.  It’s easy to become invested in this journey, and with such breathtaking scenery along the way, it’s no small feat that it’s nearly impossibly to watch anything other than Witherspoon on the screen as she takes us through every step, no matter how small.

Shedding the Excess Weight: Along with Vallée’s keen directing eye, Wild benefits from careful and seamless editing by John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa, and not a single shot is wasted.  This film shifts between Cheryl’s journey, flashbacks of her downward spiral, and memories of her close relationship with her mother, portrayed by Laura Dern.  Each memory is stitched seamlessly into the film, brought to the surface at the perfect moment, often brought in and out focus by one of the quotes Strayed scrawls into the log at each benchmark location along the trail, or evoked by the sound of music.  The further Strayed ventures on her hike, the deeper she manages to dig through these moments, shedding the burden from them along the way, lightening her emotional load as well as her physical one.  The further she gets, the more she can leave behind.

Like Mother Like Daughter:  The effervescent, warm-hearted spirit of Strayed’s mother is brought to life by Laura Dern, who shines as a woman who soaks up every drop of joy life has to offer.  Her easygoing, liquid demeanor and determination are contagious, and her love for her children is fierce.  Dern gives us the best friend and the mother Cheryl wants to share with the world, and we’re better off for the few minutes we’re able to spend getting to know her.

Everyone who has that one person in their life, that soulmate, knows that desire to be able to see yourself through that person’s eyes, to be the person that would make them proud.  Cheryl spends years struggling to become someone different before she realizes that just like her mother, that life can only be enjoyed once you fully embrace it.  Some might complain that she didn’t change at all, or that she didn’t really learn anything from her journey, but I disagree.  The discovery of self satisfaction is one that well worth the trip.  And all the mistakes and the rough roads have brought her exactly where she needs to be, so not one single moment in the wild is wasted.

Final Thoughts:  In Wild, Reese Witherspoon’s resonating yet subtle performance along with  Vallée’s precise direction combine to create a moving journey of self discovery, and one of the best films of this year.

Grade: A