I read Cheryl Strayed’s heartbreaking and heart-warming memoir over Christmas. I was unable to put it down, enthralled by her bravery, unflinching honesty and visceral pain. If you pick it up expecting another Eat Pray Love (as I naively did), you are in for a short sharp shock. It is a book I continue to recommend to everyone, because I think everyone should read it. It is beautiful and inspiring and uplifting. Reading it made me want to be a better person.
I saw the film adaptation not long after its Australian release. I noted, with a smile, that a movie about a solo female traveller attracted mostly solo female cinemagoers. My expectations were high. From the first frame of the opening sequence – just as I had imagined it when I read the book – I knew I would not be disappointed. Sure, the film omitted a couple of characters and exercised a certain degree of artistic license, but you expect that with an adaptation. The essence of the book is captured perfectly.
The multi-linear narrative of Nick Hornby’s script charts Strayed’s incredible journey across over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on America’s West Coast with only her walking boots and backpack for company. The flashback sequences to Strayed’s difficult past feel like fresh stab wounds, their raw pain plunging you into breathless agony. The film is structured to reflect the inner workings of Strayed’s mind, flitting back and forth between tackling the trail and key events in her life. Yves Bélanger’s cinematography displays the varied landscape, from stark desert terrain to lush dark-green forests, in all its rugged glory. Detail is key in Jean-Marc Vallée’s (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club – both excellent) direction, with the books Strayed read constantly referenced and her mental and physical endurance made achingly clear. It is realistic. Strayed is always out of breath, huffing and puffing her way along miles upon miles of the PCT, weighed down by her ‘Monster’ backpack. It is not some Hollywood gloss-over where the pretty little blonde girl goes skipping through the woods without ever once displaying a sweat patch or getting dirt on her knees. Like Strayed herself, the movie confronts pain head on.
Reese Witherspoon is amazing in her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed. It is wonderful to see her in a grittier role, displaying the full range of her boundless acting talents, instead of sticking to girl-next-door roles. She conveys Strayed’s equal measure of strength and vulnerability perfectly. Her innocence is tangible and balances beautifully with her imperfection, which she holds up to a harsh looking glass that most of us never choose to confront. It would be difficult to think of another actor capable of shouldering an entire, largely introspective film and maintaining Strayed’s likeability throughout. Laura Dern is also excellent as Strayed’s mother, displaying the same beauty, strong will and enigmatic quality I see and love in my own mother. The supporting cast are fantastic too, but the bittersweet mother-daughter relationship was the mainstay of the movie for me.
Cheryl Strayed is an incredible female role model. I am sure she has had to fend off the harsh criticism of narrow-minded prigs for writing about her sexual freedom and drug use. That saddens me because by the age of 25, Strayed had been through more horrific events than most of us experience in a lifetime. I can empathise with her need to do something, anything, to escape the pain. Even heroin. As she walks the PCT with bleeding feet and sore limbs, she pieces herself back together admirably. Instead of sitting around whinging about her woes, she seizes control and goes back to nature. She searches for beauty and battles her demons alone. I couldn’t do it. I can’t begin to imagine the strength of mind and character it took to endure the desert heat, steep slopes, mountain snow and desolation Strayed put herself through. Her tough start in life has not hardened her or made her bitter – she has derived strength and courage and allowed it to fortify her where it might have destroyed her. She spent time as an agony aunt, using her own life experience to impart wonderful advice to others with love and warmth. You can read her columns here.
As with the book, I found the movie emotionally draining. I cried. I felt like I needed a big cuddle afterwards. We all have demons, and I realised, watching this film, that we should all follow Strayed’s example and do whatever it takes to face them, be it walking over a thousand miles alone, undertaking a course of psychotherapy or just sitting down and having a difficult internal chat with yourself about the dark side of your personality. You don’t necessarily need to fly half way around the world to an ashram or walk so far most of your toenails fall off, but you do need to allow yourself to feel, acknowledge and accept the pain. It is real. It is valid.
“That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.”
-The Fault in Our Stars by John Green