It was an impulse.

That’s the way Sean Penn describes it. It was 1990, during the era of another President Bush, when Chris McCandless finally let himself go. It was just after his graduation from Emory University. Law school seemed to be next, and he had the grades for Harvard. His parents, self-made millionaires, hardly objected.

McCandless’s path, as it seems always to have been, lay clearly before him. And just like that, with some simple arrangements to keep his family from finding him, he donated his $24,000 savings to charity and left the carefully plotted life that awaited him.

Two years later, he died of apparent starvation in the Alaskan wilderness.

The real-life story of what happened in between and the desires that drove it inspired the book and Penn’s new film version of “Into the Wild,” now playing at the State Theater, and Penn said the story’s enduring fascination comes from the basic question it poses.

The answer to that question, ” ‘Who am I without Mom and Dad, the television, politics and pictures and whatever else it is I’m supposed to define myself by,’ ” he said in a telephone interview, “becomes a lifelong pursuit.”

In his two-year travels across North America, Chris (played in the movie by Emile Hirsch, who has popped in and out of Hollywood and independent films since his early teen years) abandoned the identity and responsibility his 20-some years had afforded him by leaving his life as if it had never existed.

Penn, a touchstone of an actor who rotated behind the camera for the fourth time to helm “Into the Wild,” suggests Chris’s decision was an act of bravery, audacity and, at least in the mind of some, narcissism. But, he said, that’s to ignore what the journey reflected of Chris’s character.

“There are those who think of this as a spoiled rich kid who ought not to put himself and his family’s emotions in such peril,” Penn said. “But what I think is realy the greater picture here is the size of his courage and his will, and how those things tell me that if he was brave enough to justify it for him, then that’s enough for me.”

“McCandless’s journey,” he explained, “while very dramatic and in some ways reckless was nonetheless so brave and so clear that there’s inspiration to be gotten out of that.”

At 141 introspective minutes, the movie feels markedly personal, but that may be more in the completed product than it was in the production. Though Penn has a long connection to this material – he was in touch with McCandless’s family for nearly 10 years before they finally decided to let him make the movie – he said its innermost thematic value rests primarily within a generation not his own.

“For a 47-year-old at this point who read this book when I was a little closer to the magic years of life,” he said, filming the movie mostly made him become frustrated with what he called the “lack of activism” among young people who arrive at McCandless’s suspicion of establishment and social expectation.

Asked what he hoped a younger generation would take away from the film, Penn, in his famous dead tone, said simply “whatever they want.” But as his eager camera lingers on the movie’s stunning expanses of desert, forest and other landscapes, most of which he said were chosen for the “360-degree freedom” they provided the production, Penn’s belief in Chris’s journey and its revelations is clear.

“I think there’s an enormous value to what he did, in that in his case, the triumph was not necessarily hope and survival,” he said. “The big thing is that he rebuilt himself.” The movie, whatever its stark destination, is ultimately about “the pursuit of freedom – freedom on whatever terms each person who sees the movie will find on their own.”

So if the deeply personal experience a movie as existential as “Into the Wild” evokes is not his, Penn said, he hopes it’s his audience’s.

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