When the Oscar nominations are being dished out in early 2015, you can safely assume that Reese Witherspoon's name will be included among the Best Actress nominees; hopefully Nick Hornby will be in there with a Best Script nomination, and Jean-Marc Vallee as Director. Given the double Oscar wins for Vallee's last film (Dallas Buyer's Club), I imagine the Academy will have this film on their radar. As they should, because this is great.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a young woman whose life disintegrated when her mother died (Cheryl was in her 20s). She mainlined sex and drugs as a way of easing the pain (strangely it didn't work), before deciding – apparently on a whim – to walk the Pacific Crest Trail which stretches for hundreds of miles from Mexico to Canada.
She could hardly be less well equipped to manage such a hike. She simply buys a whole bunch of new equipment, packs it into a rucksack, and is then surprised when she struggles to lift it off the floor. But she sets off anyway, and takes the first step on a very long journey. Not so much in terms of miles traveled (though that is daunting enough), as in terms of how she begins to process what has happened to her so far in her life. And it is here that Nick Hornby's script (adapted from Strayed's best selling book) comes into its own.
This could so easily have been a film-of-the-week cliche-ridden horrorshow, full of uplifting messages about empowerment and neat flashbacks explaining everything. But the film manages the exhilarating trick of weaving past and present together in an almost seamless fashion, as, along with Cheryl/Reese, we gradually unpick and reweave the fabric of her life in a way that is engaging, credible and integrated. There is a lot about her relationship with her mother (Laura Dern being rather wonderful), which makes you realise what she misses and how much she has relied on that unquestioning support, without which she can barely find her way.
I suspect that nothing much I say will influence you one way or the other. You'll either think this sounds just your cup of tea, or else that you'd rather drink battery acid. But I will say that Vallee is proving himself a very adept and versatile director at working with 'true' stories and finding something inside them that makes a real emotional connection with the audience. I'd also say it's one of the best things I've seen Witherspoon do. She does seem to be an actress who's found her feet and is proving herself to be not just durable, but actually very good indeed.