The women of “Into the Wild”

For a movie about a man against nature, Into the Wild features some good female roles. Well, maybe I mean good actresses — I don’t know if the roles would be so memorable in other hands. [Warning: Minor spoilers.]

I’ll go in order from worst to best — though “worst” in this case is the always capable Jena Malone, and thus not bad at all. She plays Carine, the sister of Alex, the young man who goes out into the wild. Carine is an observer and interpreter, standing sentry over her broken family in her brother’s absence. Malone’s voice also provides much of the film’s narration — something I could have done without. The role doesn’t give Malone a lot to do, but she is still very watchable. Her presence is both vulnerable and strong, and she seems to be making a successful career of that sort of thing.

Even more compelling is Marcia Gay Harden as Alex’s mother. With her suburban hair and hyperawareness of what the neighbors think, she is utterly conventional and could have been two-dimensional. But Harden can do so much with a glance or a gasp, and conveys everything from despair to defiance with her body language. She has only a handful of lines in the film, but somehow says more about loss and regret than anyone should have cause to say.

Kristen Stewart (Panic Room) plays Tracy, the teenage daughter of ramblers who encounter Alex on the road. She is all legs and eyes and burgeoning sexuality — and, as my girlfriend pointed out, at times she looks like a long-haired, younger version of Shane on The L Word.

Tracy spends most of her time lounging around in very short shorts, but she also plays guitar and sings. Her duet with Alex of “Angel From Montgomery” is sweet and sad. She reminded me a little of Evan Rachel Wood, only more dangerous — all instinct and feral innocence.

The real standout among the Wild women is Catherine Keener. She plays a “rubber tramp,” one who travels by wheels, rather than on foot as “leather tramps” do. As Jan, she is near breaking, just on the edge of giving up her nomadic lifestyle. She looks for love in any form — a puppy, a new friend — but knows she’ll never have the love of the son she has lost. I’ve never thought of Keener (who will henceforth be known to me as the non-Denbo Keener) as a maternal sort, but in Into the Wild, she alone seems to understand how deep a familial bond can be, and how deeply it can wound when broken.

Into the Wild left me feeling unsettled and a little cheated — mostly because director Sean Penn takes a one-note approach, rather than exploring the central character’s motives and beliefs — but Keener and Stewart are more than satisfying. I might even be persuaded to grab a backpack and become a leather tramp if they were my meandering companions. (And that’s really saying something, because I’m an indoorsy kind of gal.)