In my last review, I suggested you may want to see a blockbuster like Star Trek: Into Darkness instead of the independent film What Maisie Knew, since it’s a bit of a slog, and not exactly lightweight summer entertainment. This week, however, I have an indie to highly recommend, especially if you are now burned out on big budget Hollywood summer fare: the brilliant low budget Australian film Wish You Were Here.
Shot for just over two million dollars (ST: Into Darkness, in contrast, cost over two-hundred million), Wish You Were Here is the first full-length feature film from Australian director Kieran Darcy-Smith, whose resume to this point consists of short films. In addition to directing the picture, he co-wrote it with his wife, Australian actress Felicity Price, who also co-stars in the film. This sharp husband-wife team has delivered a nuanced picture that, aside from being a first-rate thriller, also delves into the intricacies of a long-term marriage with honesty and intelligence.
To reveal too much of the plot would be to give away the pleasures of watching Wish You Were Here, which, the viewer finds out in short order, is ironically titled. Suffice to say that the story concerns two Sydney-based couples, the married-with-children late 30s Alice (Price) and Dave (Joel Edgerton, best known to American audiences as Tom Buchanan in the new Great Gatsby), and Alice’s younger sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) and her boyfriend of six weeks, Jeremy (Antony Starr). The four vacation together in southeastern Cambodia, where Jeremy has some business, and, at trip’s end, only three of them make it back to Sydney.
What happened to the missing member of this quartet is the film’s main focus, and the answer is slowly parsed out with masterful suspense. Darcy-Smith expertly uses flashbacks to move fluidly from present day Sydney to the Cambodian vacation, allowing the viewer to piece together the puzzle along with the characters.
Kieran Darcy-Smith was at the screening I attended for a Q & A following the film, and he spoke of wanting to make a movie about what he termed the “Generation X Grown Up.” Darcy-Smith said he was interested in exploring what happens when carefree youth gives way to the trappings of adulthood – marriage, kids, a mortgage, careers – but the adult still pines for, as he put it, “ecstasy on the beach.” Indeed, the film does a terrific job contrasting the relatively staid Sydney daily family life (Alice is actually pregnant with kid #3), and the wild times in Cambodia – drinking, dancing, drugs, sex. Darcy-Smith examines what the cost may be of trying to recreate some of the irresponsibility of youth, and what he finds is both compelling and sobering.
Aside from having a terrific screenplay, the film also benefits from an excellent cast. Joel Edgerton, who, under Baz Luhrmann’s direction in Gatsby, seemed to have little to do but squint and act suspicious, here gets to showcase a wide range of emotions – confusion, guilt, fear, love, passion, anger, and sadness – and does so with stunning depth and conviction. Felicity Price, too, powerfully delivers in several emotionally charged scenes, and Teresa Palmer and Antony Starr, in supporting roles, turn out rich, layered characters who might have seemed more minor in less skilled hands.
In terms of tone and setting, the film is a bit reminiscent of The Beach, the 2000 psychological thriller set in Thailand and based on Alex Garland’s novel of the same name. That picture, though, concerned twenty-somethings starting out their lives and searching for meaning and authenticity. By contrast, Wish You Were Here feels more substantive, since its characters, already established in their lives, have much more at stake when they confront Heart of Darkness-type conflict.
Darcy-Smith also said at the Q & A that he wanted viewers to walk out of the film asking themselves “what would I have done?” in any of the situations presented in the film. We all “mess up and do the wrong thing,” he said; it’s how we choose to respond to our mistakes that makes us the people we are, or want to become. What truly matters, his film shows us, is finding how to accept responsibility and move forward from these mistakes in a way that does not hurt us, or the people we love.
On that note, I advise seeing this film with several friends (preferably couples); your post-viewing dinner discussion will be long and lively. And as much fun as Kirk and Spock are, I guarantee that Dave and Alice and Steph and Jeremy will haunt you for much longer after the final credits roll.
Wish You Were Here opens in Bay Area theaters today.