A masterful trek back in time in Wild

Laura Dern is heartbreakingly fragile as Bobbi, Cheryl Strayed’s mother. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Laura Dern is heartbreakingly fragile as Bobbi, Cheryl Strayed’s mother. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Review Biopic

WILD (M18)

116 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****

The story: Based on the best-selling 2012 account of a gruelling 1,800km hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) grows up adoring her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). The film begins a few days into the trek, as Strayed starts to realise the enormousness of her endeavour and the pain she will have to endure. Through flashbacks, the dark past that precedes the hike is shown.

Film-maker Quentin Tarantino has a theory about showing violence on screen - the more intimate the scene of bloodletting, the more intense the pain communicated to the audience.

In a week which sees two biopics selling personal journeys of suffering and salvation, this nugget of storytelling wisdom feels truer than ever.

Wild's opening frames of Strayed (Witherspoon) yanking a toenail torn by an ill-fitting hiking boot feels more joltingly real than any of Unbroken's scenes of men brutalised in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriter Nick Hornby, through the toenail scene and others like it, offer a masterclass in how to tell a story without words.

Strayed was alone for most of her hike and the film stays true to her hermit-like existence without relying on script crutches.

For example, there is no "exposition monkey", a character who exists to turn private thoughts into speech (2000's Cast Away starring Tom Hanks cheated with an exposition volleyball).

What little speech that happens occurs when she meets people on the road, and in flashbacks to her marriage or during her years growing up with mother Bobbi (Dern).

However, there is some voiceover when Strayed makes journal entries, replete with literary quotes about self-actualisation; Vallee leans heavily on soundtrack, featuring hits from Leonard Cohen and Portishead, among others, to communicate mood during flashbacks. These are the odd false steps in an otherwise tightly crafted film.

The intercutting of past and present is masterful, as is the slow reveal of Strayed as the flawed human who came to be where she is, walking a thousand miles alone.

Dern's Bobbi is heartbreakingly fragile; the bond between mother and daughter is fierce and tender, never mawkish.

Both actresses deserve their Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Dern and Best Actress for Witherspoon), but the younger actress' performance as the woman determined to fix herself, one step at a time - or die trying - drives the movie.