Wish You Were Here: Sundance Film Review

Wish You Were Here

World Dramatic Competition

A taut, emotionally charged drama with a first-rate cast led by Joel Edgerton. 

Joel Edgerton stars in Kieran Darcy-Smith's suspenseful first feature about the aftermath of a Southeast Asian vacation turned ugly, which kicks off the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance on a high note.

PARK CITY – Its core plot elements might almost be mistaken for The Hangover Part II remade as a dramatic thriller. But that would be trivializing Wish You Were Here, a psychologically complex account of one man’s unexplained disappearance during a Southeast Asian vacation and the fallout for the three friends traveling with him. Anchored by a riveting performance from rising star Joel Edgerton (Warrior), Australian director Kieran Darcy-Smith’s debut feature maintains a vise-like grip that reaches maximum intensity as the mystery is solved.

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Co-written by the director and his wife, Felicity Price, who also acquits herself effectively in a lead role, the film begins with a cunning false clue. Looking out across the water on a pristine beach in Southern Cambodia, Jeremy (Antony Starr) answers the ultimate-fantasy question of where he would most like to be by saying, “I’d stay here.”  The screen then explodes behind the opening titles into a kaleidoscope of vibrant color, bustling street life, chaotic movement and exhilarating music that conveys both the seductive exoticism and the dangerous otherness of the place.

A handful of ecstasy pills are distributed during a night of wild drinking and dancing, before the action cuts abruptly to pregnant Alice (Price) and her husband Dave (Edgerton) returning home to Sydney. It’s clear something is wrong from the uncomfortable glances exchanged with Alice’s mother (Tina Bursill) as she hands over their two young children (Otto Page, Isabelle Austin-Boyd), and the quietest suggestion of tension as the family sits down to dinner. But only when Dave goes online later, looking for news updates, do we discover Jeremy has been missing for nine days.

Shifting in nonlinear but fluid fashion between Sydney and Cambodia, in the present and the recent past, it’s revealed that Jeremy had been dating Alice’s flaky younger sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) for only a month or two before the trip. She urged the couple to accompany them, partly out of insecurity about the fledgling relationship and partly to force them to take a break before the increased responsibility of a third child. But beyond a rudimentary explanation of his Asian import business, none of them knows much about handsome, easygoing Jeremy.

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When Steph flies home after continuing to cooperate with the Cambodian authorities in a fruitless investigation, she’s a wreck. Her agitation is heightened by fear of the legal repercussions should it emerge that drugs were involved, and by guilt over a sexual transgression that took place on the final night of partying, when Jeremy vanished.

While fragmented episodes from the trip continue to resurface, some pleasurable, others disturbing, the principal focus becomes the increasing strain on Alice and Dave’s marriage. Paranoid, secretive and evasive with the Federal Police detective (Nicholas Cassim) leading the investigation, Dave alienates Alice, whose relationship with Steph also deteriorates.

The visceral fireworks of the characters’ arguments and the disintegration of trust among them are observed with unsettling intimacy in the script and in the emotional honesty of the performances. In its mature examination of the corrosive effects of crisis on the fabric of family life, and also in its defining sense of place, Wish You Were Here at times recalls another Australian film, Ray Lawrence’s superb 2001 psychodrama Lantana.

The film teases the audience into believing Jeremy’s disappearance will remain unsolved. But as the threat of losing everything he values reaches a peak for morally conflicted Dave, Darcy-Smith and Price’s screenplay kicks into a final round of meticulous plotting that satisfyingly clarifies the events of that night and makes retroactive sense of Dave’s erratic behavior since returning.

This kind of character-driven suspense can be challenging to sustain, but Darcy-Smith achieves that with the assurance of a far more experienced filmmaker. He also displays an impressive grasp of rhythm and composition, aided by editor Jason Ballantine’s dexterous cutting and by cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin’s lustrously textured HD visuals, which have the stinging lucidity and restlessness of a wide-awake nightmare. This is terrific stuff.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Aquarius Films in association with Blue-Tongue Films
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, Antony Starr, Nicholas Cassim, Otto Page, Isabelle Austin-Boyd, Tina Bursill, Wayne Blair, Valerie Bader, Pip Miller
Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Screenwriters: Kieran Darcy-Smith, Felicity Price
Producer: Angie Fielder
Director of photography: Jules O’Loughlin
Production designer: Alex Holmes
Music: Tim Rogers
Costume designer: Joanna Park
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Sales: LevelK
No rating, 93 minutes.