It doesn’t live up to its title, unfortunately. “Aimless” would have been more like it. We’ve seen filmmakers adapt autobiographies that tell of personal struggles or heroic exploits. American Sniper is a recent example. Reese Witherspoon, who produced the film, obviously felt that Cheryl Strayed’s story would provide her with a challenging role. Her challenge – literally – was to show this woman hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail as a personal mission, and for the audience to be as inspired as she was.
The film is bifurcated in that the present concerns her actually hiking the trail, and the backstory, told in flashbacks, shows her life leading up to that decision. The film opens with her at the start of the trail, in the Mojave desert. She’s kind of a novice, but some of the seasoned hikers, all male, give her pointers that prove valuable. They’re a pretty nice bunch of guys, in general.
But the emotional core of the story is the background, which establishes the cathartic nature of the journey. We glimpse her as a little girl, when her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern, kicks out her abusive husband and struggles to raise Cheryl and her younger brother by herself.
What we learn about Cheryl as she grows up – and this is really the only interesting thing about this film – is that she’s not a very likable person. She seems to want to write, but somehow never does. She gets married to a “nice” guy, but shows no particular interest in him, or in raising a family. We see a person of self-doubt, defensiveness and willful isolation. The only relationship that really involves her is with her mother. There is genuine warmth between them, and Dern is appealing enough to have earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, complementing Witherspoon’s best actress nod.
The “motivating” event, supposedly, is Bobbi’s death from cancer. At first, Cheryl turns to heroin and pickup sex, but this only leads to divorce. Perhaps as a way to extinguish her grief, she embarks on a journey that reaches an actual destination, the Canadian border. Symbolically, a real destination is something that was missing from her life until that point.
Actually, I’m reading more into it than what the film shows because what motivates her to make this particular journey is never clear. She doesn’t seem to have any great love for nature, and neither does Bobbi. It seems Bobbi once owned a horse, which had to be killed for some reason, but I can’t connect that with crossing an 1,100 mile wilderness. In short, when the lead character of a film takes on a grueling, life-threatening adventure, the audience had better not be distracted by that question.
In fact – and I admit this is a little nasty – the only reason for Cheryl’s journey that makes any sense to me is so she could write a book about it later. Which she did.
Nick Hornby’s clunky adaptation doesn’t help, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) spotlights some colorful unknowns in the cast, even if what they do matters little to the story.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s a badly made film. Given its meandering dramatic line, it plods along rather engagingly, much like its heroine. There was nothing shocking, offensive or ridiculous about it. Too bad. If it was a really bad film, it might have been more fun.