Beautifully shot and with a memorable, tough-guy-meets-vulnerable-dad performance from Joel Edgerton, “Wish You Were Here” keeps threatening to become a first-rate mystery tale about secrets, lies and sex.
Its story flits back and forth through time, unspooling a tale about a Cambodian holiday gone bad and the ramifications of an ecstasy-fueled party that leaves one man missing and the lives of his vacation mates in shambles. But there are a few weakly drawn characters and a rushed ending that leaves the timeline-hopping plot strands in an unsatisfying cinematic heap. It all made for an entertaining opening to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday (January 19), but one that left us itching for some truly great festival films in the days to come.
Edgerton plays Dave, an Australian boat builder and father of two, who jets off to Southeast Asia with his pregnant wife, Alice (Felicity Price), her sister, Steph (Teresa Palmer) and Steph’s boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr). They tour Cambodia’s towns, beaches and flea markets. The handheld camera work and rocking score make for a compelling travelogue in these opening scenes. One night, though, they pop pills (save, wisely, for Alice, who heads to bed early). The next day Jeremy is gone, and the remaining three are forever changed. What exactly happened on that drug-addled night is the mystery at the heart of “Wish You Were Here,” and first-time writer/director Kieran Darcy-Smith expertly builds suspense as secrets are revealed through flashbacks and emotional, present-day confessions.
Dave clearly knows more than he initially lets on about what happened in Cambodia, and Edgerton perfectly conveys, often with one glance as the camera stays locked on his gaze, the extent of his anxiety-ridden guilt. Price, too (a relative unknown on American shores), delivers a layered, affecting performance as she learns, along with the audience, the brutal truths at the center of the film. Palmer, though, is given little to work with in the script, a problem not only of character but of storytelling, since her actions are so integral to driving the drama forward.
Yet “Wish You Were Here” still manages to be a taut mystery — until, that is, the film’s final act, as Darcy-Smith rushes to wrap everything up, leaving plot holes aplenty and a healthy dose of confusion. We won’t give anything away, but we will say this. If the lessons of films like “Midnight Express,” “Brokedown Palace” and “Return to Paradise” weren’t already clear, let “Wish You Were Here” be the final word: travel abroad for the towns, beaches and flea markets — and skip the drugs.