The grieving process is at once completely universal and entirely specific. Everyone experiences loss at some point in their lives but no two people cope with it in precisely the same way.

"Wild," the big screen adaptation of the Cheryl Strayed memoir of the same name, dramatizes the experience in a deeply personal fashion, delving into the character's soul.

It follows the author (played expertly by Reese Witherspoon) as she hikes a large chunk of the 2,600-mile Pacific Coast Trail in a bid to find herself after losing her way following the death of her mother (Laura Dern).

There's a structure but the movie is practically avant-garde in its disregard for plot.

The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") and scripted by author Nick Hornby, is well-served by the approach, which frees its makers to craft a complex flashback-heavy construction that illuminates the memories and emotions characterizing each part of the journey.

The tonal montage catapults us through Cheryl's childhood, unpacks her tight bond with mom Bobbi and chronicles a lost period in the wake of Bobbi's death from lung cancer at 45. The lonely trip up the coast, across empty fields and sprawling mountains on gray days, mirrors the voyage through Cheryl's mind and heart as she tries to find a way forward.

The filmmakers demonstrate expert precision in linking images of the present and the past, which flow together like the proverbial stream alluded to in Henry David Thoreau's famous conception of time. At times, things get a bit cornball -- we could've done without the magical fox that Cheryl keeps seeing along the path -- but the movie never delves into spiritualist nonsense.

Instead, it openly and honestly presents Cheryl's struggles, including a period of significant infidelity and drug abuse, without judging her or simplifying her actions.

A lesser movie would regard her in broad strokes, defining the character by her conduct.

This one is blessed with an inherent desire to take full stock of this person, flaws and all, that's amplified by the dignity and smarts of Witherspoon's work. It's not easy to convey a rush of conflicting feelings all at once, especially in material that's essentially an extended deconstruction of this character, but the star does so in a matter-of-fact way that's both eloquent and convincing.

In that sense, "Wild" earns its redemptive narrative. It shows us a woman hiking her way through the abyss of despair and arriving at some measure of happiness and contentment.

 

'Wild'

3 stars

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman

Rated R