Wild Reese Witherspoon

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Fox Searchlight’s world premiere of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, kicked off the 41st Telluride Film Festival on Friday, screening to a packed Chuck Jones theater audience that included Witherspoon, co-star Laura Dern, director Jean-Marc Vallee and surprise guest Oprah Winfrey.

“Wild,” based on the best-selling memoir, tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed, played by Witherspoon, and her hike across the 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The pre-screening buzz on the adventure drama was all about Witherspoon. It was deserved: she offers a tour de force performance that moves her solidly into the Oscar race in the best actress category, where she last won in 2006 for “Walk the Line.” But the film should compete in many other categories, including supporting actress for Dern, who plays Witherspoon’s mother.

SEE ALSO: Photos from Telluride Film Festival’s Opening Day

Vallee, who last directed “Dallas Buyers Club,” easily matches his work on the Oscar-winning drama and awards voters may respond similarly. Like “Dallas,” Vallee gets great performances across the board, even from actors with one or two lines. And, like the Matthew McConaughey-Jared Leto drama, he and his screenwriter (here, Nick Hornby) are able to transform an unsympathetic character into a hero.

As one industry vet said, “The man next to me was copiously sobbing. But you know what’s going to make this film a hit: women.” The moviegoer theorized that the character’s struggles will connect with women more than other survival tales like “All is Lost,” “127 Hours” and “Into the Wild,” and the book found an enthusiastic audience as the first selection when Winfrey rebooted her influential book club.

The film’s next big test: Toronto.

Also co-starring Gaby Hoffman, “Wild” hits theaters on Dec. 5.

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