Holiday Negligence Goes South in 'Wish You Were Here'

Directed by: Kieran Darcy-Smith; Runtime:
Grade: C

Wish You Were Here works best as a straightforward cautionary tale about a very plain, common-sense idea: dropping ecstasy and getting tanked in public while on vacation in a foreign land, no matter how carefree the trip, might not be the best way to go. The first foray into directing from Australian actor Kieran Darcy-Smith aims to accomplish more than this, of course, as it focuses on a man racked with guilt over his knowledge of what happened during the high period, along with gradually unfolding a suspense story that reveals a secret about the disappearance of one of his traveling companions. Despite a range of considerable performances from well-regarded Aussie actors and gorgeously photographed locations, this quasi-thriller can't avoid the fact that exceptionally poor decisions are what spark its thrills and manufactured conflicts, detracting from the authenticity that Darcy-Smith aims to achieve as it lingers on the drama created by heaps of human error.

Four adults -- Alice (Felicity Price) and Dave Flannery (Joel Edgerton), a married couple with two children (and a third on the way), Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer), and her relatively new boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr) -- travel to Cambodia for an inexpensive yet liberating holiday. While there, they eat, drink and merrily party through the night as a means of cutting loose from their hectic lives, leading to an evening where the group, save Alice, pop pills and dance through their unfamiliar surroundings. The story picks up in the aftermath of that evening, where Jeremy has vanished without a trace, and since they're not able to be any further help to the authorities, the three remaining travelers return to Australia to get back to their lives as the search continues for their missing friend. But something's different about Dave, clearly shown by his detachment from his family and his jittery demeanor, which suggests that he knows more about Jeremy's disappearance. Through investigations and the scrutiny coming from his wife, the truth slowly surfaces.

While it's admirable to see Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price depict something more relatable than the gritty, grim crime-dramas of other contemporary Australian cinema, the scarcity of practical thinking in Wish You Were Here jerks their ambition two steps back. Darcy-Smith flirts with tones similar to Lantana in the way that the looming mystery creates even more dilemmas along the way to a revelation, but one poor decision after another are what bring the actions and reactions back to the evening in question, escalating into overcooked drama while Jeremy's fate hangs in the balance. The script cleverly references little details spread across the film and connects them into a clear portrait, such as a visit to the motor-vehicle office and small elephant souvenirs that seem meaningless at first, but that cleverness can only go so far when it's building upon the follies of drugged-up, reckless tourists in a crime-laden Asiatic country. Ecstacy and booze should probably be credited as their own characters given how much they impact the twists and turns; without them, there'd probably be no mystery to solve or conflicts to repair.

Wish You Were Here is told through a lopsided, mindfully-constructed blend of linear and non-linear thread lines: the core story progresses chronologically while we're given brief, disordered flashes to significant moments from the trip, slowly revealing pieces of the puzzle behind Jeremy's disappearance. At first, director Darcy-Smith's craftsmanship smooths out the plot's disadvantages, the raw anticipation behind Dave's secret driving it through scenic glimpses in both Cambodia and the Flannery's near-coastal Australian home. About halfway through, though, that anticipation slumps as the plot changes direction and focuses on the human drama created by Dave's secrecy, anxiety, and forgetfulness -- on top of an additional, fairly superfluous outburst of melodrama created by other unsavory things that transpired in Cambodia. Contrary to the way the film's presented, the mystery takes a backseat to the burgeoning frustration of domestic conflict created by the holiday, where the characters' strained reactions erupt within Jules O'Loughlin's sound, candid photography.

Without the cast that Kieran Darcy-Smith has pieced together to realize his complicated characters, it's easy to see how Wish You Were Here could collapse more quickly than it does here. Instead, the performances mask the meandering drama and maintain a presence long beyond the writing's level of intrigue, primarily due to Joel Edgerton's capacity to personify weathered, conflicted personalities. Watching Dave crack under the pressure of his secrecy becomes crucial to the film's purposes; Edgerton elevates the character's terse reactions to his wife's inquiries and responses, his hidden conversations with Steph, and the way he avoids government employees who are investigating Jeremy's disappearance. Felicity Price has a similar effect on Alice's strain as an expecting mother trapped in a web of dishonesty woven around her husband, while Teresa Palmer makes the most out of enlivening the bareboned role of Alice's fraught sister. And Antony Starr respectably appears out of his Banshee skin as a sketchy entrepreneur with charm, despite the character's inherent lack of presence in the story.

Eventually, Wish You Were Here reveals what happened over in Cambodia after being drawn out across the film's ninety-minute runtime, but it's ultimately unsurprising and, once again, hinges too heavily on moments of character foolishness and a contrived turn of events to strike an effective blow. It's at this point that the film expresses its wishes of how the audience should view Dave at the end, who has been maneuvering around this secret in a paranoid state and enduring domestic hell in the process. Despite a commanding last-minute burst of emotion from Joel Edgerton that ultimately validates the character's decision-making process, it ultimately rings hollow due to the baggage the scene carries about Jeremy's investigation and what catalyzed the truth to come to the surface. Kieran Darcy-Smith exhibits the potential to craft a deliberate and disruptive slow-burner with everyday people crumbling under the pressure, but this dramatic plummet into the aftereffects of a holiday gone south doesn't altogether get us there.

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