OK, let me say upfront that I was not a fan of the book. I know, I know. It’s been a bestseller forever and Cheryl Strayed is a brave woman for not only baring the not-so-pretty parts of her life but also getting out there and surviving that PCT, but to me it was “Eat Pray Love” without the self-deprecating humor or appreciation for the pleasures of life. The movie, which screened today at Cinema Society and opens in theaters next month, sticks very much to the structure and voice of the book. In other words, there’s a lot of hiking.
Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed, whose life took a dark turn after the death of her beloved mother and the dissolution of her marriage thanks to her own reckless, destructive behavior (numerous infidelities, heroin use, you name it). Having lost hope for her own redemption, she decides to hike more than 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail – by herself and with absolutely no experience. We follow her on the trail – for two hours. Occasionally, she meets up with strangers, some of whom are friendly, some of whom are threatening. She copes with horrible heat and impassable snows and drenching rains. She learns how to operate her camping gear and ration her food and water. Through it all, we become familiar with her back story through many, many flashbacks. There are so many flashbacks, in fact, that it was often easy to lose the thread of her present situation. We meet her mother (an always wonderful Laura Dern), her brother, her husband, her best friend. We see glimpses of her one-night stands and drug use. And we see the determined jawline of Reese Witherspoon, who, though vulnerable, is right at home playing a character who’s determined to make it to the finish line and show her mother she’s the woman Mom raised her to be. By the closing credits, she’s healed. The End.
Maybe some of my detachment toward the material comes from projection – i.e. I can’t imagine myself trying to heal from grief by hiking the PCT. And maybe it’s because I found Strayed and, in the movie, Witherspoon, lacking in any sense of irony or wit, nor does she take a moment to step back and gaze at the gorgeous scenery with awe and wonder; she seems so singularly about herself and her problems. On the positive side, I do admire Strayed’s courage and her unwavering survival skills. I’d be such a chicken in her position, so kudos to her for not only getting through it all in one piece but for writing a book about it and serving as a role model for other women who’ve lost their way.