There's another film coming down the awards-season pike about a woman who embarks on an arduous solo journey and lives to tell - and write - the tale: Wild, opening Dec. 5, with its star, Reese Witherspoon, already the presumptive front-runner in the best actress Oscar race.
But in the meantime, attention should be paid to Tracks, a soul-stirring film set in that otherworldly place called Australia (kangaroos, feral camels - who thought of these creatures?), and set in another-worldly time: the mid-1970s, when hippiedom reigned, when the divide between "straights" and "longhairs" seemed as wide as, well, the Australian desert.
With her faraway gaze and dusty saris, the twentysomething Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) belonged on the hippie side of the equation if she belonged anywhere at all. But that was her problem, she didn't fit in. Her parents were dead - mother to suicide, father disappeared on a trek across 2,000 miles of harsh outback. It is the same trek Robyn decides to make, with four camels and her big black dog, Diggity.
Ably adapted from Davidson's memoir of the same name by director John Curran, Tracks is the story of a woman harboring a lot of hurt and pain, a woman of fierce resolve who still finds herself vulnerable, open to self-doubt. That's a lot of character to pull off in a film short on dialogue. Even with a voice-over narration, and conversations with her dog, Robyn's nomadic quest is full of grand silences, all the better to take in the sky, the rocks, the world spinning underfoot. Wasikowska plays this wordless wanderer just right. That is, she makes her real.
Robyn's solo journey - from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean - is interrupted at periodic intervals by a nervous-ninny American photographer assigned to document her journey for National Geographic. It's a compromise she's made (the magazine story), and you can almost feel her dread as Adam Driver's Rick Smolan pulls up in his Land Cruiser, ready to tag along for a day or two, shooting away. Dread, but also relief: a person to talk to, to help her reconnect with civilization, whatever that is.
In Tracks, too, Robyn finds herself in the company of several aboriginal men and women, living off the land, communing with its ghosts. For a time, one of these men, the leathery old Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), guides her across some tricky geography - the physical terrain, and the spiritual terrain, too.
In a voice-over, quoting from Davidson's book, Wasikowska's intrepid trekker says there are three gifts given to us to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. "But the greatest of these gifts is dogs," she adds, which is both a joke, and a heartfelt sentiment. Even if you're not a dog person, you come to understand why this restless woman is more comfortable in the company of four-legged beasts. Her need to go it alone, to prove herself, and maybe find herself in the process, is paramount.
Tracks ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Curran. With Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Lily Pearl, Roly Mintuma. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, nudity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.EndText