Helen (portrayed by Ellie Kemper) is first spotted sitting solo at a gathering. The room buzzes with chatter, clinking glasses, hearty laughs, and rhythmic dancing. She appears oblivious to others and they to her. With a thoughtful gaze, she unfolds a slip of paper, reviewing her aspirations for an upcoming nature trek:
- Seek a profound bond with the wilderness.
- Reemerge triumphantly, akin to a mythical phoenix.
- Secure that elusive certificate.
The soiree’s host is none other than Helen’s sibling, Duncan (a charming act by Alexander Koch). Her presence isn’t for celebration but rather a practical errand: to hand over her keys for Duncan to watch her place. However, he’s off somewhere with his partner, prompting her to entrust the keys to Duncan’s confidant, Jake (Luke Grimes from “Yellowstone”). He encourages her to linger, reminiscing, “You used to be the life of the party.” Her retort is sharp, “I’m a blast—a blast beyond your wildest understanding.” It doesn’t take long before we see her present Duncan with a detailed, laminated checklist for his house-sitting duties, signaling to us that she’s lost touch with her once-fun self.
Helen’s desire to emerge anew is rooted in the aftermath of her divorce and the sorrow it brought. But it’s not hard to predict that her journey will lead her to confront other remnants of her past. When Beckett (played by Ben Cook), the guide, describes the trek—81 miles across the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and New York—as “intimidating yet stunning,” he’s subtly referring to life’s broader spectrum of trials and triumphs.
You might also foresee the plot twist when Jake, Duncan’s buddy, turns up among the trekkers. He and Helen act as if they’re strangers to dodge awkward questions. It’s like following a well-marked path; you can guess the destination, but the journey itself holds delights.
And delightful it is, with Daniel Vecchione’s cinematography painting the New England autumn in breathtaking hues, catchy tunes punctuating moments, and a beautiful Pablo Neruda poem woven in. The characters are layered, each with the potential to astonish us and themselves. Shayvawn Webster radiates positivity as Windy, delivering one of the movie’s most poignant scenes. Gus Birney surprises us as Kaylee, who initially seems frivolous. Even Beckett, the youthful leader, reveals unexpected depths. A humorous montage of his go-to phrase kicks off the film. And Blythe Danner? She’s always a gem, especially enchanting in her role as Helen’s grandmother.
Ellie Kemper’s portrayal of Helen is at the core of the narrative, a role that seems tailor-made for her. Helen isn’t as perpetually cheerful as Kemper’s usual characters, allowing her to explore more nuanced emotions and complexities. Her innate glow shines through in every scene, even when she’s makeup-free during the hiking sequences. Kemper delivers a childhood monologue that demands a wide array of emotions, moving us as she transitions from the innocence of the “before” to the sorrow and resilience in coping with past trauma.
Luke Grimes plays a subtler part, akin to the Ken of Helen’s Barbie. His character’s pivotal moment might not shock viewers, but his dry wit adds a charming layer to Jake, and his affection for Helen is apparent well before she notices it. Crucially, we’re all rooting for her to recognize it by the time she does.
Vicky Wight, who wrote and directed the film, adapted it from Katherine Center’s beloved book, building on their prior work together on “The Lost Husband.” Wight maintains an upbeat atmosphere while also weaving in moments of introspection. While some viewers may feel the call to trek the Appalachian Trail themselves, everyone will be reminded of a simple truth: the first step towards happiness begins with gratitude.
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