Mother-daughter relationships in cinema rarely progress beyond adolescent displays of irritation, embarrassment, and angst. The antagonists may be an overbearing mother and her disobedient daughter (Pride & Prejudice, Titanic) or a cool mom and her selfish, narcissistic teen (Amy Poehler and Rachel McAdams, respectively, in Mean Girls). Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild—adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s nonfiction book about her struggle with grief and addiction as she trekked across the Pacific Crest Trail—is something different, a multifaceted exposition of a mother-daughter connection so extraordinary and difficult it ranks with the ones in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003).

Played by Reese Witherspoon, Cheryl hikes from California’s Tehachapi Pass to the Oregon side of the Bridge of the Gods, mentally revisiting her self-destructive path of shooting up heroin and cheating on her spouse, as well as her mother’s battle with lung cancer. In the course of the film, Cheryl begins to process the overwhelming grief she feels over the death of her mother, which she has refused to deal with for years, crippling her emotions with drugs and various sexual relationships.

Cheryl describes her mother as a “saint,” but as portrayed in the movie’s flashbacks, Bobbi (Laura Dern) is far from immaculate. Pregnant at 19, she married an angry man who beat her and bullied her children. In one scene young Cheryl runs out of a store bathroom carrying a makeshift bandage of toilet paper and, inside their parked car, dabs at her mother’s bloody face. Despite the abusive marriage, however, Bobbi is animated, affectionate, understanding, and graceful. At one point Bobbi raises her palms as if measuring an invisible substance and inquires, “How much do I love you? This much?” Little Cheryl and her brother jubilantly scream, “No!” Bobbi asks the same question again and again, widening the space between her palms until it reaches her wingspan. Only then do the children jump up and embrace their mother with an ecstatic, “Yes!” This tender moment is repeated in flashback a couple of times, clearly a significant and powerful memory. Yet, along with these gentle moments come memories of Bobbi gradually dying from cancer.

  • Laura Dern

Cheryl’s tortuous relationship with her mother ranges from love to repulsion, which is typical of mother-daughter connections. In Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), psychotherapist and second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler asks why women express revulsion, antipathy, and contempt toward one another. Chesler specifically mentions the relationship between mothers and daughters, citing studies conducted over 20 years to argue that, “In a sense, daughters (and younger women) ‘replace’ their mother (and older women) as sexual, fertile, pregnant, and lactating beings,” and that “daughters are disappointed in their mothers’ acceptance of their own second-class status.”

In Wild this friction between mother and daughter is most evident when a teenage Cheryl, being chauffeured around by Bobbi, pontificates about how enlightened and refined she is compared to her mother. She’s merciless in describing her superiority over her mother, but this moment also reveals the true disparity between them. Cheryl may have been exposed to literature and philosophy to a greater extent than her mother has, but she’s inexperienced and naïve; Bobbi, by contrast, is wiser, kinder, and ultimately more graceful.

In these recollections one sees how lovely and generous Bobbi is, for instead of scolding her daughter for her tasteless and cruel comments, she expresses only gratitude for her daughter’s opportunities and education. Bobbi was unable to finish school or dive into scholarly material; she had a family to raise. Though hurt by Cheryl’s abrasiveness, Bobbi is neither feeble nor stern, but considerate, amiable, and understanding. She is the admirable woman, not Cheryl, and her daughter knows it, which is why the death has taken such a toll on her.

  • Reese Witherspoon

In order to let go of her mother, Cheryl must endure the physical punishment of the Pacific Coast Trail, plagued by blisters, an overweight backpack, and her own agonizing memories. In one flashback Cheryl and her brother are forced to put down their late mother’s horse with a shotgun, and the scene is excruciating both in print and on-screen. Like Bobbi, the horse is ill and unable to recover; for Cheryl, pulling the trigger is like watching her mother die all over again.

From Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies to Shailene Woodley in Divergent, strong female leads are finally connecting at the box office. Yet Cheryl isn’t your typical heroine; she’s damaged, limited in strength, and an inexperienced hiker at best. She makes such poor decisions on and off the trail that it’s a wonder she survives. Nonetheless she’s a more tangible heroine than her action-movie counterparts, one with determination, resilience, fears, and a real past to reckon with. Cheryl is someone women can connect with, not least because of the strained mother-daughter relationship. At the beginning, Bobbi seems truer to herself as a woman, but as the story progresses, Cheryl finally finds her stride on the hiking the trail and her identity in life, achieving parity with her mother. Neither superior nor inferior, she can just live.