“Into The Wild,” review by Jenny Halper

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Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book, which began as an article for Outside magazine, uses flashbacks, voiceover, and chapters – pretty much every unconventional trick of the screenwriting trade – to tell the story in a stirring way. It works.

Into the Wild tells the story of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who, after graduating college, gave his life savings to OXFAM and his Datsun to a flash flood, leaving his family in a bitter state of knowing nothing as he traipsed towards Alaska.

The voiceover narration, much of which is read by Jena Malone (as Chris’ sister) is a quiet, poetic antidote to the wild rapids and drink-fused bar talk Hirsch dives into headfirst. The chapters function not as a hand-holding literary devise but as a means of seeing the story from Chris’ point of view, a masterful cinematic scrapbook with all of the intensity that defined a young man whose college classes centered on Apartheid and African Politics, who preferred hardscrabble living to comfort. When we leave the isolated Alaskan bush – where Chris’ body was found two weeks postmortem – for the cozy suburb where Chris’ parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) live, Penn does this without melodrama. We see his mother walk in quiet despair through an empty supermarket parking lot. We watch his father wander into the middle of a road. We meet a woman drifter (Catherine Keener), also estranged from her teenage son, who develops and intense (albeit brief) relationship with Chris, and the movie becomes not just an examination of adventure – the risks and rewards of alternative lifestyles – but of how and why families from all backgrounds fall apart.

Into the Wild runs nearly two and a half hours, but it is never slow. Surrounding Hirsch’s brave performance are cameos by a star studded ensemble that wallpapers the story without overshadowing it: Kristen Stewart’s shy subtlety as a teenaged hippie with a crush on Chris, Vince Vaughn’s heartily charismatic grain elevator operator, Keener’s heartsick drifter. Best of all is Hal Holbrook as an elderly widower so attached to the wandering youngster he offers to adopt him. It is this final chapter that cements the devastating effect of Chris’ disappearance, contrasting his utter disregard of the people who love him with his wholehearted caring for relative strangers. Is he brave? Headstrong? Stupid? I’d say all three, and the beauty of the film is that it lets you decide for yourself. (Spare Change News)

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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now, NewEnglandFilm.com, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and ClickFlicks.net. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.