This review was originally published on January 22, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Australian filmmakers have been on a bit of a streak lately with regards to cranking out crackerjack thrillers, with no small credit going to the Blue-Tongue Films crew. 2009’s "The Square" was a remarkably tense neo-noir and 2010’s "Animal Kingdom" earned its rightful place among the ranks of crime family dramas; now, "Wish You Were Here" examines the toll that guilt has on well-meaning thirtysomethings to mostly intriguing effect.
Steph (Teresa Palmer) has a new boyfriend in Jeremy (Antony Starr), and once he invites her to join him on a working vacation in Cambodia, she in turn invites her pregnant sister, Alice (Felicity Price), and her husband, Dave (Joel Edgerton), partly out of a sense of protection and partly out of consideration. It’s all well and good until Jeremy winds up missing, and the remaining family has to return to Sydney and attempt to move on with their lives.
It quickly becomes apparent to the audience that Dave knows more about what happened than he’s letting on, and the crux of that mystery is what drives the film and dictates its past-present structure. Kieran Darcy-Smith’s direction feels unobtrusive and observant, allowing the relationship dynamics to feel convincing and the stakes to mount credibly. However, the screenplay – co-credited to he and real-life wife Price – feels reverse-engineered from its big dual-climax reveal, and the intentionally withholding structure only invites further contrivance into the plot and frustration from the viewer as it unfolds. No 90-minute film should feel like it’s stalling in order to run out the clock.
Thankfully, the performances are strong enough to keep one invested in what really happened and the full extent of the fallout. As the film’s ostensible lead, a boat maker who can’t keep his own life afloat as leak after leak springs forth, Edgerton is mostly called upon to repress the anguish and remorse that informs his post-Cambodia life and does so superbly. When compared to "Animal Kingdom" and "The Square, Here" deals in more complex moral dilemmas than either film, and he bears the burden particularly well throughout. As his foil, Price quietly harbors contempt for her husband and the father of her children born and not yet as his behavior grows increasingly erratic and suspect.
After being relegated to female sidekick roles in mediocre American fare ("The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," "I Am Number Four," "Take Me Home Tonight"), Palmer proves more of her worth as an actress with greater displays of emotional exasperation in even less screen time here. Of course, by the very nature of the premise, Starr gets the fewest scenes with which to make an impression, but he suitably straddles the line between Good Time Charlie and a man with a shadier agenda so as to make his absence seem like neither a good riddance nor a complete surprise.
That title speaks well to the multiple definitions and interpretations of who had really hurt whom and for which reasons. The “you” of the title could stand for wishing that friends had made it back from a supposed escape, that family members could support one another in the face of great strife, that the truth could be readily apparent rather than muddied by both uncertain accounts and inconclusive accountability. "Wish You Were Here" goes to a dramatically gripping place of guilt and doubt; if only its grip had held just a bit tighter.
SCORE: 7.4 / 10