Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, who, following her mother’s death, the demise of her marriage, a brief foray into heroin, and an abortion, decides that she will spend three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She initially plans to end her journey in Ashland, Oregon, but because heavy snowfall causes her to have to skip over a portion of the trail, she decides to go further north, to a place called Bridge of the Gods. Her adventures on the trail– in which she struggles with a too-heavy backpack, too-small boots, encounters with wild animals like foxes and rattlesnakes, and numerous interactions with other hikers (mostly male, some friendly, some threatening)– are intercut with flashbacks to her past: a poor but mostly happy childhood with her mother and brother (the film excises the stepfather and sister that are present in the memoir on which this was based); her mother’s bout with cancer, which came on suddenly and led to her death much more quickly than the doctors predicted; her marriage, which ended primarily because of Strayed’s many infidelities with random men; and her dalliances with heroin.
As she gains strength, confidence, and experience as a hiker, she deals with her past, ultimately asking, what if she didn’t regret anything she’d done? What if she wanted to sleep with all of those men? What if heroin taught her something? What if she was sorry, but if she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t do anything differently? There is a flashback to a scene where a college-aged Cheryl frustratedly asks her mother (Bobbi, played by Laura Dern) why she’s so happy all the time: they have no money; they’re going to be in student loan debt for the rest of their lives (her mom is attending college alongside her); and her mother is all alone because she married an “abusive, alcoholic asshole.” Her mother tells her that she doesn’t regret marrying that “abusive, alcoholic asshole”: because of him, she had Cheryl and her brother. Cheryl learns a lot of things on her hike, but perhaps the most important is to learn to see her past experiences through the lens her mother viewed life, to learn from and make peace with her past rather than agonize over it.
One of the things that was admirable about the book was the way that Strayed unflinchingly, matter-of-factly recounted the details of her past, even the parts that were uncomfortable. The book, for example, only devotes a few sentences to Strayed’s decision to have an abortion; the film devotes no more, with Cheryl telling her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) without fanfare that she isn’t going to have the baby. The film presents other scenes with similar matter-of-fact realism; the scenes in which Cheryl has sex with strangers are non-exploitative, simple, to the point, unromantic scenes, taking place, in one case, in a hotel room and in another, in the alley behind the restaurant where Cheryl works as a waitress. The scenes depicting heroin use take place in dirty rooms on filthy mattresses. The film doesn’t try to excuse or justify Cheryl’s actions, but it doesn’t condemn her for them, either.
As Strayed, Witherspoon must carry the film, appearing in almost every scene and playing her at different ages and different stages of life. She is more than up for the task; it is difficult to think of a better performance in the past year. As her mother, Laura Dern is absolutely luminous. In the book, Bobbi is depicted as a life force: a woman who worked hard to keep food on the table; who loved her horse; who stayed positive in the face of abuse and relative poverty. Dern emits warmth in this role; Bobbi was, as Cheryl tells a fellow hiker in the film at one point, the “love of her life,” and both actors do an excellent job of portraying the pair’s closeness.
As an adaptation, the film is fairly faithful, though, as noted above, some characters are omitted, and with them, some details: how Cheryl’s stepfather, for example, built a one-room house with a dirt floor for them all to live in, and how they all lived “back to the land” style for years. At times, we see Cheryl writing in a diary accompanied by Witherspoon’s voiceover, and there some of Strayed’s writing and reflection from the book are preserved. We also get quotes from some of the writers Strayed loved and read along the trail, presented here as inscriptions on the trail log as Strayed makes her way. If the film has a weakness, then, it’s simply that it would have been impossible to include everything. It knows that the most important aspects and themes of the book are, however, and it keeps them intact.