When 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed walked off a highway and into the California desert to hike a thousand miles north, she was searching for something: meaning, hope, redemption, a way to move beyond pain and despair.

The result of this soul-searching odyssey was Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2012 bestselling memoir chronicling Strayed’s tumultuous life after her mother’s death. But where the book succeeds, the film does not. Like Strayed’s three-month journey, it can be tedious and tiresome – an interesting idea but not an easy one to pull off.

The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and adapted by novelist-turned screenwriter Nick Hornby, centers on Strayed’s solo hike on the PCT, a trail that spans three states and covers terrain from sand to snow. The story is largely told through flashbacks, which attempt, inadequately, to illuminate the circumstances leading Strayed to abandon her rocky life for the purifying solitude of rocky nature.

We first meet Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), dirty and exhausted, on top of a mountain outlook. The trek so far has been brutal, and it shows. Her toenail is bloody and black, ready to pop off like a Pringles lid. Then disaster: Her hiking boot topples off the edge of the cliff. In frustration Strayed takes the other and hurls it after the first.

These scenes on the trail are gold. We experience trail life: the desert heat, the threat of rattlesnakes, the dangers of being a woman, alone, on a path frequented by men. We learn about Strayed: that she’s gritty, that she’s funny, that she’s a terrible planner (her pack is too big, her boots too small. And she threw one off a mountain).

We’re impressed by her too. It’s sheer determination that propels her. But even after nearly two hours of Witherspoon tromping through the woods, we come away with an incomplete sense of her character and only a vague sense of the lesson she’s learned.

The trouble isn’t the hike – it’s what comes before. The flashbacks reveal parts of Strayed’s experiences and her mental state, but not enough to paint a satisfying picture.

When her mother dies of cancer at 45, Strayed spills into a destructive spiral. She cheats on her husband and starts using heroin – these scenes pass too quickly to deliver any emotional punch.

The development of Strayed’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) is similarly underwhelming. She’s more of a joyful caricature than a character. This problem is, if we don’t care about the mother, we don’t care about Strayed, we don’t care about her journey. After all, Strayed is grieving for her mother – shouldn’t we be too?

The cinematography is a trip through the American West. But the shots are flat and uninspired. In a movie like this, the background deserves to be more than just background.

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Even so, Witherspoon, at the fore, is splendid. She commands the camera with pluck and charisma in a performance that would have been more powerful if we had a better developed context for her character.

Perhaps the film works best as a social critique. The biggest danger Strayed faces in the wild is, unexpectedly, men, who range from repressive to pervy to alarmingly creepy. Vallée does well capturing the tension in these encounters, and the general griminess of the entitled Man.

Ultimately, it’s a tale of triumph – against man (and men), against nature, against misery and pain. It’s the true story of a woman who decided to walk, and to keep on walking. For a thousand miles. And that, if not much else in the film, is wild.

WILD (2 1/2) Directed by Jean-Marc-Vallée • Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Michael Huisman, Thomas Sadoski • Rated R • 115 mins. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte.

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