Review: Wish You Were Here
When did narrative ambiguity become its own kind of formula? With the advent of cinematic modernism (mark it when you will), the unresolved plot thread, the dangling question, the elided climax, and the blurred character motive evolved from basic screenwriting gaffes into building blocks for a new sort of cinematic storytelling, one modeled after the uneven, gap-filled course of life itself—or, more accurately, what specific filmmakers took real life to be.</p>
Now they’ve been incorporated into the very narrative structures they were once defined against. We expect our high-minded dramas to hop back and forth in time, pass over key details in silence, and linger on characters as they stare moodily into space—but only to a point. Genuinely ambiguous stories tend to leave their audience deeply unsatisfied—not with a pleasant, comfortable dissatisfaction, but with a stomach-knotting sense of having missed something terribly important. Few films even attempt this kind of ambiguity. More often, they trade in a kind that comes in doses large enough to tickle but not large enough to aggravate.
So it goes with Wish You Were Here, the debut feature from Australian director Kieran Darcy-Smith (who co-wrote the screenplay with lead actor Felicity Price). The clearest reference point is Antonioni’s L’Avventura: a small group of friends visit a far-flung locale—here it’s Cambodia—where one of their number disappears without a trace. In both movies, the inexplicable absence of a single individual ends up making his or her peers aware of other, unnamable absences: something, they discover, is missing from their relationships, from their lifestyle, and (at least in Antonioni) from modern life itself.
The similarities, for the most part, end there. Wish You Were Here is not a radical film; it doesn’t try to be. It’s shot with a kind of ragged prettiness that threatens to devolve into mid-budget-independent-drama shorthand (there are a few too many bobbing back-of-the-head close-ups of earlobes for comfort) but more often comes off as the work of a discerning eye. Darcy-Smith and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin have a knack for subtly de-stabilizing an otherwise placid shot, whether by shifting a figure just a little off-center or letting their camera slowly shift its weight in place.
In the frenetic opening, a montage tracks two Australian couples through a weeklong binge of Cambodian slum-tourism, climaxing in a flurry of disjointed, shaky-cam party footage. The night of this bonfire bacchanal, one member of the group—suave businessman Jeremy (Antony Starr)—vanishes. After a few days of fruitless searching, husband-and-wife pair Alice and Dave (Felicity Price and Joel Edgerton) return to Sydney and their two cherubic kids; eventually, they’re followed by Alice’s devastated sister Steph (Teresa Palmer). The search continues, then peters out; secrets come to light, and Alice and Dave’s marriage starts to come apart at the seams. The film becomes a domestic drama that (in the words of many a documentary trailer) plays more like a thriller—complete with ominous white-noise musical cues, troubling yet elliptical flashbacks to the night of the disappearance, and a denouement that brings everything into terrible clarity.
Wish You Were Here is acted with formidable skill and assembled with a high level of professionalism—and if the former quality is the movie’s saving grace, the latter is its biggest flaw. For a film about people becoming unmoored, sensing absences they can’t name and struggling under the weight of secrets they wish they couldn’t name, there’s little that’s unstable about the film. The soundtrack shudders right when it should to generate the proper spine-tingling effect. Brooding gazes and tense silences are timed for maximum significance and minimal audience alienation. Compositions are just off-kilter enough and camera movements just unsteady enough to communicate Alice and company’s discomfort—but rarely enough to put us genuinely ill at ease.
The problem isn’t necessarily that Wish You Were Here keeps dipping its toes into darker, murkier waters than it’s willing to dive into—although that is a problem, especially when it comes to the movie’s extended-flashback climax. The problem, I think, is that it tries to derive a traditional sort of cathartic payoff from a situation whose dramatic potential depends on the very absence of such a payoff. It’s too easily satisfying, too traditionally well-made to be an honest portrait of dissatisfaction. Perhaps to make a well-made film about the unnamable gaps, ellipses and absences that riddle whatever we mean by “real life,” you’d have to first invent a fresh meaning for what’s considered “well-made.” A film with Wish You Were Here’s thematic concerns ought to be much more radical—formally, structurally, stylistically—than Wish You Were Here ever tries to be. That may be an unfair standard for a debut that is in many respects quite accomplished. But can a film be too accomplished for its own good?