Certain actors inevitably convey a particular demeanour, no matter the role they’re playing. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, her performances have always been laced with a ‘can-do’ attitude. In Legally Blonde that attitude was used for comic effect; in Election it was satiric. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film, Wild, Witherspoon’s ‘can-do’ affect is transformed into pure grit. The plot is fairly simple: in the wake of her mother’s death, Cheryl Strayed recognises that her self-destructiveness has led first to the dissolution of her marriage, and later to promiscuity and drug-use. She decides to undertake a thousand-mile hike through California and Oregon, along the Pacific Crest Trail. The journey is an effort to reverse the trajectory she has been on. ‘I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,’ she says. It is an act of both pilgrimage and exorcism.

Wild is the latest in a series of notable solo filmic voyages by women seeking self-discovery, all drawn from best-selling memoirs. First came Julia Roberts’s globetrotting turn as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, then Mia Wasikowska’s journey across the Australian desert as Robyn Davidson in Tracks. Like Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed is taking flight out of marriage; like Davidson, she is healing herself after the death of her mother. But of the three films, Strayed’s pilgrimage seems the most urgent, and Witherspoon’s embodiment of her is the most deeply felt performance.

The film begins, as does the book, on the edge of a precipice. We watch as Strayed loses first a toenail, and then her hiking boots. The cost exacted by her trek, and the level of physical endurance it requires of her, are clearly evident. The camera repeatedly dwells on her battered feet, inviting the viewer to examine the battle scars borne by a woman determined to go on. There are the toenails lost, the bruises which cover her body, the sores produced by the chafing of her pack at shoulder and hips. When she calls her brother from a payphone it is to tell him, ‘I’m still alive… and that’s all my news’.

Though Strayed’s persistence against the deprivations and challenges of the trail are impressive, more significant still is her survival of the demons of her past – and in part this survival comes from the reclamation of other parts of her life. The battering her body takes is akin to sloughing off her grief and self-destructive behaviour; the books that count as her company on the trail connect to those strands of her life that she would like to pick up again. In flashback we see her in a college classroom, absorbing her teacher’s discussion of Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Power’. In her tent, she reads aloud from this same poem, circling back over the line, ‘her wounds are the source of her power’. Strayed’s journey is punctuated by literary references. As she signs her name in the registers that dot the trail, she adds lines from works by Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Flannery O’Connor, claiming co-authorship of her favourite quotes. When a man helps her discard unnecessary weight from her pack, she refuses to relinquish her books. It is to Witherspoon’s credit that her intellectual occupation of these texts is as complete as her physical inhabitation of the role.

Though her journey comes in the aftermath of her broken marriage, the death of Strayed’s mother Bobbi at the age of 45 forms the unhealed ‘wound’ which drives her to seek first destruction, and later salvation. Flashbacks reveal their relationship was one of intimacy – but also, at times, cruelty. Speaking to a therapist, Strayed describes her late mother as ‘the love of my life’. In Strayed’s memory, Bobbi (portrayed by Laura Dern) is luminous, determined to wring from every possible moment of joy from life. Watching a sunset with one of the few women she encounters on the trail, Strayed recalls her mother’s belief that ‘you can put yourself in the way of beauty’.

As Strayed’s journey continues, beauty blooms around her. In the early miles we see the ground beneath her feet, the camera jerking as she expends great effort to cover short distances. As she grows accustomed to the rigors of the trail, her vision expands. The landscape that at first seemed to consist of a monotony of dust, rock and sagebrush is transformed – by distance traversed, but also by vision – into a rich, varied, and beautiful world. Both book and film train their focus on beauty, but in divergent ways. In her memoir, Strayed focused on specific details to closely illustrate the landscape’s particularities. Vallée’s film-making conveys the sheer panorama of the trail: using long-shots to show the extent of its length, and framing Witherspoon’s diminutive form against the landscape as she negotiates obstacles.

Strayed articulates the question that drives so many pilgrimage narratives when she asks, ‘What if I forgive myself?’ That same question perhaps suggests why stories of female-driven journeys are resonating with audiences now: self-reliance and the abandonment of a conventional life have long been male-dominated themes. These stories do not show us women seeking to ‘have it all’, but rather seeking to pave their own path and to live on their own terms. That Wild has not been marketed or received as a typical ‘chick flick’ is testament to the universality of Strayed’s honest fear: ‘I’m nowhere near ready’. Embarking on the trek pulled her up from rock bottom, but the deprivations of the trail have an endpoint. The return to ‘real life’ – without the certainties of a job, money, husband or mother – sits on the uncertain horizon. Instilled by her journey, Strayed’s unreadiness is a necessary precursor to the life she will construct on the other side of self-forgiveness.