A much better directorial showcase for Jean-Marc Valleé than last year's Dallas Buyers' Club. Like 127 Hours a few years back, the challenge for one-person dramas will lie in the flashbacks. No one is going to be able to tolerate 127 hours with one man or 1000 miles with one woman and his/her voice-overs.
However the difference between James Franco/Danny Boyle's adventure was the purpose of the journey. In this case, Cheryl Strayed story - as told by Hornby - is one of lost and (self-) discovery. It may not resonate with a lot of people: why walk 1000 miles? But for those of us who have gone through such challenges, albeit less extreme, we can relate to the emotions that Witherspoon went through. Not just the physical hardships and the constant doubts and regrets, but also the need to seek something out. To seek oneself, to understand one's past and present so as to decide on the future. The Chinese says it best, and most succinctly: 寻找自我 (looking for myself).
The script was classic Hornby. From the musical references throughout - we all did that on our hikes/journeys! - and the literary quotes to the self-reflecting stream-of-consciousness voice-overs laced with doubt and peppered with obscenities and the questions about God and religion (in this case more veiled). Pity, like the Dardenne Brothers' modern morality play, he too was no recognised by the Academy. Perhaps the source material is more a lightweight compared to Hawking's or Turing's biographies, or Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and less a crowd favourite than Whiplash or political than American Sniper. But Hornby's prose is definitely not weaker than any of the above, instead, as a writer, his words and the story it tells may actually be more beautiful than all of them.
Witherspoon gave a strong performance. Much better than her Oscar winning role as June Carter. It was a demanding role, and she displayed all that raw emotions out, naked and vanity-free. The only thing that she could have done better was to go more method - and Vallée should have taken more note on continuity - for a 3-months trek she barely lost weight, got a sun burnt or had a bad hair day. That would be why she would not win on Oscar night, and also why the film did not get a nomination for Best Picture or Director.
The only other actor that stood out - no disrespect to Thomas Sadoski or the ubiquitous Michiel Huismann - was the amazing Laura Dern. Dern's total screen time may be minimal - but, hey!, even Judi Dench won her Oscar with just 5 minutes - but she is without a doubt the spiritual center of this whole film. Without her luminousity and her relationship with Witherspoon, we would not able to feel anything for Cheryl nor empathise with her journey. In just those brief minutes that she was on the screen, we are immediately drawn to her presence and her positivity. Just like in The Fault In Our Stars, Dern is the MVP of the film. If there wasn't Patricia Arquette and the juggernaut that is Boyhood, this year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actress might be hers (Streep, Stone and Knightley really have no chance).
At the end of the film, there was a sense of peace and satisfaction. For Cheryl/Witherspoon completing her journey, but also for the audience completing the journey with her. Makes me want to go climb a mountain again.