Most unsuccessful Hollywood films suffer from one common failure – an unworthy story. So it’s great to see Sean Penn’s haunting new film Into the Wild prove how infectious a great story can be when told with care and purpose. Adapted from Robert Krakauer’s source novel about 22 year old Christopher McCandless’ travels through the American wilderness, Into the Wild paints a romantic portrait of the college graduate/runaway hero looking for spiritual rebirth. McCandless (played with charisma and gusto by Emile Hirsch), retreats away from his dysfunctional family, friends, and material belongings for the open air and adventure of the road, meeting a cast of memorable characters along the way, the most wonderful being a hippie couple (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a grain farmer (Vince Vaughn), and a lonely Vet (the sublime Hal Holbrook) with his own heartache to spare. Each falls in love with McCandless’ free wheeling spirit and charm, and are heartroken when he leaves them for the next turn. Chris understands each of their pain, yet he sees them as steps of experience toward the ultimate awakening – living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the film is told through flip flopping time frames, paralleling Chris trekking through America’s backwoods, deserts, and rivers, with what ends up being his final resting place, an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan tundra. Penn utilizes this editing style to juxtapose Chris’ wonderful experience with the people he befriends, and his lonely demise after eating the wrong roots from the local terrain. For such a determined character to realize in his final moments the “one with nature” philosophy he’d lived by was incomplete without human connection, really speaks to the power of both Hirsch’s spellbinding performance (especially in the final moments) and Penn’s incredible patience with the material. Into the Wild depends on plenty of fantastic nature photography to create an aura of the wilderness worthy of McCandless’ vision, but these moments stand out only because the story unfolding holds beauty and mystery for the characters themselves. Thankfully, we get to share in the awe, of both McCandless’ fateful and revealing odyssey and Penn’s gallant and conflicted cinematic representation.