Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) walks the grueling Pacific Crest Trail in Wild (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Can you walk your way back to emotional health? Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspooon) gives it a try in Wild. 

Divorce, disease and her own misbehavior have separated the young woman from the people who’ve been closest to her. Since her life lacks direction, she arbitrarily gives herself one: north. On a morning in the mid-1990s, she sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail all the way from California’s Mojave Desert to Washington state.  

It’s a grueling trek, as we learn from an early flash-forward. Cursed with a backpack that’s too heavy and boots that are too small, she pauses on a rocky mountain ledge to examine her bloodied feet.  

But though her walk is both lonely and dangerous, Cheryl’s greatest challenge is coming to terms with what lies behind her. Thanks to a constant stream of flashbacks, we learn that she had a supportive husband (Thomas Sadoski) but cheated on him with a series of strangers. We also learn that she never appreciated her plucky mother (Laura Dern), who has now disappeared from her life. 

Drug abuse also played a role in the dismal existence she made for herself and is now, apparently, trying to escape.   

Based on a memoir by the real Cheryl Strayed, Wild is scripted by Nick Hornby (An Education) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club). It’s a sincere and occasionally admirable tale, even if it doesn’t reach the heights attained by its creators’ best efforts. 

Despite a bravely unglamorous performance by Witherspoon, we never feel a direct connection between the young woman who became addicted to heroin and the hiker who’s determined to conquer a 1,100-mile trail. The flashbacks attempt to explain Cheryl’s damaged psyche, but they too often come off as stereotypical melodramas.  

The film is at its best during Cheryl’s occasional meet-ups with male strangers. These moments underline her vulnerability as a woman on her own, but they sometimes surprise us with a sweet or funny outcome. Funniest of all is her encounter with a traveling journalist (Mo McRae) who insists on seeing her as a hobo because he wants to write her up in a publication called The Hobo Times. 

More often, Wild deals in generalities rather than the specific details that would make its story come alive. An example is the scene in which Cheryl meets another woman hiker and asks why she hit the trail. “I just need to find something in myself,” the stranger replies. Well, don’t we all? 

Yves Belanger’s cinematography emphasizes the rugged beauty of the varied landscapes Cheryl struggles through. Flashes of sex and nudity add a dollop of gritty reality while helping to earn the flick its “R” rating. 

If only the script were similarly grounded in reality, Wild would be as engrossing and inspiring as it wants to be. 

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5) 

Wild, rated R, opens Friday (Dec. 19) at theaters nationwide.