Directed by: Kieran Darcy-Smith.
Written by: Kieran Darcy-Smith & Felicity Price.
Starring: Felicity Price (Alice Flannery), Joel Edgerton (Dave Flannery), Teresa Palmer (Steph McKinney), Antony Starr (Jeremy King), Nicholas Cassim (Jon Canane), Otto Page (Max Flannery), Isabelle Austin-Boyd (Holly Flannery), Tina Bursill (Margie McKinney), Wayne Blair (Willis), Valerie Bader (Helen King), Pip Miller (Jim King).
Kieran Darcy-Smith is part of a group of Australian filmmakers who all work on each other films. The best known film by these filmmakers is David Michod’s excellent Animal Kingdom – a gritty crime thriller that made my top 10 list a few years back, and got Jacki Weaver a richly deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as the mother from hell. Another excellent little noir called The Square (2008) was also made by this group – directed by Nash Edgerton, and written by his brother Joel. Darcy-Smith had acting roles in both of those films – and for his debut feature, he cast Joel (again), alongside Darcy-Smith’s wife Felicity Price (who is also wrote the screenplay with) and Teresa Palmer – who starred in a short film for Nash Edgerton – who also worked as a stunt coordinator on the film (which he does mostly for big Hollywood movies – like the upcoming Wolverine movie). This incestuous group of Aussies have made some wonderful films – not just the features, but the shorts that are nasty, violent and funny at the same time. While Wish You Were Here does not reach the level of The Square or Animal Kingdom, it is a promising debut film from Darcy-Smith.
The film opens in Cambodia, where two couples have gone on holiday. Alice and Dave (Price and Edgerton) are married, with two kids and a third on the way, who are talked into going by her younger sister Steph (Palmer) with her new boyfriend Jeremy (Anthony Starr) – who needs to go there on business, although that business may not be on the up and up. The movie then flashes forward back to Australia – Alice and Dave have come home, but Steph has stayed behind because Jeremy is missing. Steph will soon return as well bringing with her revelations – not about Jeremy – that Dave wishes she didn’t. These, couple with the investigation into what happened to Jeremy, throws everyone into chaos.
In a way, Wish You Were Here is similar to an Eli Roth movie – except done more realistically with less grotesque violence and exploitation. Roth’s films – from the two Hostel films and his latest Aftershock (which he co-wrote and stars in) – are all about ugly Americans, going to a poor country, acting like idiots, and being punished for it. That describes Wish You Were Here pretty well, even if this time they are Aussies and not Americans behaving badly. Still though, these are well off people from the first world, going to a third world country and exploiting them – only to eventually come face to face with the reality of that place. Unlike Roth, Darcy-Smith takes the concept seriously though – and as a result, has made a much better film.
The star of the film is clearly Price, who along with her husband, wrote herself a great role. At the beginning of the movie, she looks to have it all – she’s very happy in her suburban life with her seemingly perfect husband and great kids. And she is the one who takes everything that happens the hardest – she feels betrayed by her husband and her sister, and throws herself into trying to help find Jeremy – if only because she doesn’t know what else to do. Edgerton is good in a tricky role – it requires him to convey a lot, without doing very much as he is often still, often moping, and always clearly hiding something. It’s another strong performance by an actor whose resume is filling them (The Great Gatsby aside). And Palmer, who was good with an American accent in Warm Bodies earlier this year, strikes the right notes as the perpetually whiny, selfish Steph – who cannot understand why no one sees her as the victim she so clearly sees herself as.
The film’s structure, of flashing back and forth between the past in Cambodia, and present is Australia, gets a little annoying at times – it’s clear that Darcy-Smith and Price have structured it this way to preserve the mysteries of the movie, which turn out to be rather bland and predictable when they are finally revealed. The film is just a touch too clever for its own good – disguising things we have guessed. I did admire how the movie didn’t try to make any of its characters sympathetic though – none of the characters are really bad, but none are all that good either – not even Alice, who selfishly sulks to the detriment of those around (and inside) her.
Wish You Were Here never reaches the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Square – two films which it will inevitably be compared to. Both of those films were smarter and more intense, and featured even better acting than is on display here – even if acting is this film’s strong suit. Still, I want to see what Darcy-Smith comes up with next. This is a promising debut film.