Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s journey along the Pacific Crest Trail is a story of self-renewal that is rewarding, empowering and supremely life affirming.
Since this is a story of an individual and her pursuit of personal redemption, it distinguishes itself as a story with a very strong feminist editorial POV that stands in refreshingly sharp contrast to the overwhelming majority of contemporary feminist thought.
At the outset of the film, we see a woman who may not be up to the outrageously difficult task before her. She struggles with the physical load of her backpack. She fails to purchase the right kind of fuel for her stove and discovers her mistake only when it’s too late to do anything about it. She thinks about giving up almost immediately.
In short, we’re presented with a realistic portrait of a fallible woman. A woman with limitations of physical strength. A woman with palpable fears, insecurities, and frustrations. A woman whose reach exceeds her grasp. A woman who is trying to find an inner strength within herself that will allow her to transcend these limitations.
Through the course of the film, she encounters several men. Each man represents a certain male archetype in the world. Each one sets up certain expectations in the mind of the viewer and Cheryl alike. There’s the rural desert farmer who might be a sexual predator, but ends up offering hospitality and a meal with his wife. There’s the wise outdoorsman who comes across as an average guy, but gives sage advice on how she can do a better job of managing her supplies. At every point, Cheryl opts to trust and to hold a general assumption of good faith in the men she encounters. A decision which stands in deep contrast to the stance of antipathy and antagonism that defines contemporary feminism.
Of course, there are men who do not operate on good faith and offer some insight into the fears and frustrations of women who seek to define their individualism.
One of the more interesting scenes involves a journalist from a publication devoted to covering hobo culture. The writer is immediately fascinated by Cheryl and assumes that she is a hobo despite her protestations to the contrary. She’s just “taking a break”. He asks if she’s a feminist, to which she replies in the affirmative. In her defense, she explains that most women have responsibilities; they have children, they have lives. None of this dissuades the writer from fabricating his own story about her, but her defense of motherhood as an expression of the empowered woman is nothing short of revolutionary.
The subject of sexual assault does arise as I expected it would, but it is handled very expertly. Cheryl encounters a couple of guys who fit a certain stereotype of redneck, beer swilling hillbillies. She offers them some of her water, but her fear and distrust is bursting off the screen. It is a powerful scene in two respects. It reveals her feelings of vulnerability, but at the same time reinforces the risk that life presents. All of the social media admonishment to “teach men not to rape” is exposed as empty farce. It simultaneously underscores the harsh reality that each woman is solely responsible for her own safety and that the world is inhabited by irrational people who lack a basic moral compass. It also serves as another reminder to the viewer that this reality does not preclude one’s ability to trust the goodness in others.
On the flipside, the film portrays Cheryl as a woman with a sexual appetite. In one of the lighter scenes, the man who helps her organize herself questions the necessity of 21 condoms. Even if it represents Cheryl’s over preparedness, it reveals Cheryl’s willingness to follow the sexual path wherever it might lead.
Thankfully, there is a scene of a consensual sex with the dreamy Michiel Huisman. When the overwhelming majority of feminist media is overflowing with hysteria around rape, it is a nice change of pace to simply have an adult portrait of a sovereign individual who has full agency, and freely gives herself to a man without the need for consent at each step. She appears to enjoy it to boot. Women do in fact have sexual appetites and are fully capable of initiating sex. And often do. It would be awesome if feminist media were able to recognize this occasionally instead of constantly portraying women as hapless victims of a predatory male patriarchy.
At the core of Cheryl’s quest is the pain of her mother’s recent death, the implosion of a marriage, and her recovery from substance abuse.
Her memories of her mother are among the most moving scenes in the film. Cheryl castigates her mother for making a meal for her brother, but is cheerfully reminded that she’s doing it as an expression of love. She chides her mother for having unsophisticated taste in literature only to be reminded that it was her intention all along that she surpass her mother in every way.
In an especially devastating scene, Cheryl selfishly whines about their circumstances. Played by the imminently enjoyable Laura Dern, her mother confronts her with a fundamental choice. Either you will learn to love the life you have or you will wallow in a solipsistic cesspool of self-loathing and selfishness.
It is Cheryl’s recognition of her petty, selfish narcissism and how her hubris lead to her own self-destruction. It makes her relatable and ultimately makes you root for her.
Another interesting turnabout in the film is a subtle recognition of female privilege. Feminist media is stuffed to the brim with whining over male privilege, but the spotlight is almost never turned inward.
On one rainy night, she implores a park ranger to allow her to collect a shipment of supplies. Despite his reluctance, he agrees. Three male hikers arrive shortly thereafter and the ranger is solidly intent on refusing them service but relents after some gentle persuasion from Cheryl.
The next morning, the same park ranger brings coffee and a donut to Cheryl and nothing for the three male hikers. Men will do just about anything to get in the good graces of women.
Cheryl ultimately completes her journey, and in her final voiceover, alludes to her future husband and future children. She finds the freedom, redemption and sense of self-worth she sought. Ultimately, that meant becoming a mother herself and trying in her own way to be the example that her own mother was to her.
The film is shot on location throughout the PCT and is some the most beautiful natural landscape on earth.
There are quotes by Emily Dickinson and Joni Mitchell. This movie is steeped in feminism but it never feels heavy handed.
Feminists place so much emphasis on pay equity, sexism, assault, reproductive freedom, body images, speech and all of these alleged transgressions that it comes across like a petty, childish cult of the perpetually aggrieved. The contemporary movement seems determined to turn women into children who are offended by everything and can only progress if men prostrate themselves in penitence.
Cheryl’s journey is personal. She’s questioning herself. She is seeking her own salvation.
“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
I believe that Cheryl’s quest for individual redemption and the affirmation of the revolutionary power of love and motherhood makes this among the most powerful feminist statements being made today.
And it’s a message that I daresay is timeless.