By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 21, 2014 at 9:06 AM

The bad news for "Wild": Director Jean-Marc Vallée, at least three films into his career this side of the Canadian border, specializes in making Oscar bait. No, wait; don’t run away quite yet, because the flip side is that Vallée has mastered the art of making Oscar bait that doesn’t feel like it. Most awards hunting movies try to pawn needy, cloying pyrite trinkets as gold. Vallée pulls off the opposite trick; at first glance, his movies read cheap but end up carrying quite the luster.

The trend started with 2009’s "The Young Victoria," a costume drama about the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign. Its yawn-worthy description, however, hides a surprisingly engaging product. Even tied into the stiff corset of a royalty period piece, Vallée found room for some breath, life and style. Having the invaluable Emily Blunt at the lead is never a bad thing either (the movie was positioned to be Blunt’s big leading breakout but faded out, netting only some predictable cosmetic Oscar nominations).

Last year’s "Dallas Buyers Club" pulled the same trick. On paper, the film sounded like perfect awards material, telling the story of an overwhelmingly homosexual struggle from the safe vantage point of a heterosexual and his redemption. On screen, however, the script and direction gave the movie more grit and honesty than expected, aided of course by its Oscar-winning lead performances.

And now, Vallée’s done it again with "Wild." Once again, the premise doesn’t look promising at first glance, appearing like yet another feel-good travelogue of breathtaking scenery and petty problems – something like "Eat Pray Love: The Outdoors Edition" or "Julie & Julia vs. Wild." At best, it sounds like a female rehash of "Into the Wild," but don’t confuse it with Sean Penn’s adaptation (or for that matter "Into the Woods," though the title is just as fitting, and considering the role music plays in "Wild," it might feature the same amount of singing).

Under Vallée’s eye, however, it ends up none of those things. Instead, "Wild" is its own beautiful, rich story.

A bruised and bloody Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a woman lost in the woods of her regular life long before she took to the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Her glowing single mother (Laura Dern), described by Cheryl as the true love of her life, suddenly passed away, leaving Cheryl and her slacker brother on their own.

Lost and hurt without her mom’s guiding light, Cheryl spirals into an uncontrolled tailspin. She begins cheating recklessly on her husband (Thomas Sadoski) with whoever is around, eventually getting pregnant in the process. She also samples all sorts of drugs, looking for an escape from her emotional misery – no matter how brief or how harmful. Her mother died trying to joyfully accomplish and achieve everything for herself and her family, working to the bone as both a caretaker and a student. Cheryl seems to take that mission too much and too joylessly to heart – "I’m a girl that says yes, not no," she says near her nadir – pushing her further into self-destruction.

To right her course, Cheryl decides to "put herself in the way of beauty" by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, an absolute gauntlet of extreme endurance. Along the way, she battles the furious elements – the cold and the heat, the mucky water and the draining dehydration – a few creepers on the trail, her body (the opening moments are a toenail terror) and, most significantly, herself. Her subconscious regrets and memories insistingly burst through along the trek, forcing themselves to be addressed and bandaged as much as the bruises and blisters.

It’s a journey overwhelmingly populated with gorgeous scenery – as well as overwhelmingly populated by men. Many are friendly; some land somewhere on the uneasy scale of flirty to frightening. "Wild" may be the story of one woman trying to fight through the sometimes crushing weight of life – symbolically brought to life by Cheryl’s pack, which starts as a comically massive burden but slowly withers away. 

However, it also contains the stories of multiple women carrying their own burdens, expectations and weight. Her mother is stuck carrying the consequences of her abusive marriage. One of the women who gives Cheryl a ride along the way carries the sadness of her dead son.

Society puts on the additional weight of beauty standards (a makeup saleswoman scoffs at the sweaty, disheveled Cheryl when she stops in) and men’s demanding, often leering expectations. A ranger, for instance, only reopens his shop after getting a date, and he delivers coffee and pastries in the morning. When some fellow male campers complain about the unwanted pampering, Cheryl astutely notes that she "doesn't typically go for refills; refills go for her."

Meanwhile, the men go about unweighted by the world, masters of shaking off their struggles. In the world of "Wild," the men way work in the fields, carry crossbows and wear shaggy mustaches, but women are the quiet true fighters.

The backpack visual could come off obvious, but it’s a tribute to Vallée’s deft touch for the material that it comes off so descreetly effective. Unlike many prestige pics, he doesn’t overplay the emotions or messages; other than a bit of voiceover, he allows them to play out freely and naturally.

And really, that’s the word for "Wild": natural – from the setting to the storytelling. Vallée’s direction mixes in the right amount of grit and grand beauty, giving the pains and victories equal time while pushing neither too hard. Meanwhile, the script – adapted by "High Fidelity" and "About A Boy" author Nick Hornby – smartly unfolds Cheryl’s story with honesty, intrigue and amusing dashes of humor (Vallée gets a surprising amount of chuckles out of a hobo journalist and some on-screen titles keeping track of the miles and days).

While her physical wounds come on fast, Hornby slowly reveals her internal emotional ones through sporadic flashbacks. There’s no obvious gimmick to the memories; instead, they flow like a kind of stream of consciousness – a song cue here, an angry flash there – balanced well within the journey itself. While some stumble with jumping around in time, "Wild" works both dramatically and emotionally.

Perhaps his smartest directorial choice, however, is putting his performers front and center, giving them room to live and breathe in their characters. It can sometimes come off as distant filmmaking, but it can also result in getting some career best work. That was the case with McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club," and it’s also the case here with Witherspoon. It’s a deeply felt, raw and consistently engaging performance. For long stretches, "Wild" is essentially a solo act, and Witherspoon constantly keeps the audience with her on the trail and in her head. 

The real heart, however, is the perpetually underappreciated Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother and guiding beam of light. It’s a role that could’ve easy come off cloying and cheap – a damaged but undimmed human inspirational poster – but Dern’s love of life is so sincere. And when Cheryl says cruel things without thinking – insulting her lack of sophistication during a conversation about Robert Michener, for instance – you can see everything on Dern’s face. You see the words pierce down deep, see it splinter and fracture into other places and then begin the recovery.

It’s a performance with an authentic soul, beautiful in all its hurt and heroism. The same can be said for the entire movie, a tribute to the wins and wounds that make life, well, wild. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.