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Telluride: Fest Kicks Off With 'Wild,' Reese Witherspoon Returns to Oscar Discussion

The A-lister returns to form after a turbulent nine years since her Oscar-winning performance in 'Walk the Line'

Fox Searchlight's Wild became the first film to screen at the 41st Telluride Film Festival this afternoon when the fest in the Rockies kicked off with its annual Patron Preview in the Chuck Jones Theatre. Among those on hand were Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir inspired Nick Hornby's script for the film; Jean-Marc Vallee, the Canadian director best known for last year's best picture Oscar nominee Dallas Buyers Club; and Reese Witherspoon, the 2006 Oscar-winning actress who plays Strayed in the film. The filmmakers were introduced before the film, which, when it ended, received polite applause.

In terms of the awards season that kicks off today, my own sense is that the nearly two-hour film — which chronicles a 1,200-mile hike that Strayed took from the Mexican border to Canada to try to come to peace with her dark personal past and the recent loss of her mother — has its best shot at garnering recognition in the best actress Oscar category, thanks to a formidable performance by Witherspoon. The A-lister is on screen for virtually every minute of it, usually by herself, and does the sort of "brave" work — as in physically demanding, risque and not at all glamorous — to which the Academy has always responded. It's nice to see her really pushing herself again, after an up-and-down run since Walk the Line nine years ago.

Meanwhile, with Wild, Vallee has demonstrated, for the second time in two years, that he is a real actors' director. Last year, he became the first director to guide multiple performers — Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto — to Oscar victories without garnering so much as a nomination himself. After this film, perhaps people will realize that was no fluke. But, that being said, Wild, overall, strikes me as a bit less polished and engaging than Dallas Buyers Club.

What keeps it from being a more fully satisfying experience is the fact that not a heck of a lot actually goes on when one spends months by oneself out in the wilderness, necessitating flashbacks and MacGuffins that are sometimes a bit awkward, and a little too much exposition and symbolism for some tastes. (When Strayed sets out on this trip, she's carrying a lot of baggage, and she's both heading out into the wild and a little wild herself — get it?) And marking the passage of days or miles, as this film does, is rarely a good idea, since it gets viewers counting and wondering how much more counting they'll have to do.

Moreover, as The New York Times noted this week, we've seen a lot of films about people out in nature all alone over the last few years, most notably Gravity, All Is Lost, 127 Hours and Into the Wild (the last of which shares producer Bill Pohlad with Wild), and, to some extent, I think there may be a bit of fatigue for the subgenre.

What never grows old, however, are scenes of bickering and reconciliation between parents and children, since we all have experienced and/or continue to experience that in our own lives, and this film certainly tugs at the heartstrings on that level. The ever-capable Laura Dern may be a bit too young to actually be Witherspoon's mother, but that is forgotten when the two talents go toe-to-toe in scenes that range from hilarious to heartbreaking. Those offer a nice respite from Witherspoon's other scenes in isolation.

With Searchlight pushing this little film, anything is possible — after all, this is the small but savvy operation that, in just the last decade, propelled Juno, Little Miss Sunshine and The Descendants deep into the Oscar race and Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave across the finish line. They'll figure out how to get voters to watch this film. But, based on the word out of Venice, which will either be confirmed or rebutted here in Telluride on Saturday, they may have an easier sell in Birdman.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg