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wish-you-were-here-poster

There can be very few pains as acute as not knowing what has happened to a missing person, especially a loved one. When someone has died, there is, if nothing else, the opportunity to arrive at closure. When someone is missing, however, there is no such opportunity: any sighting could be a lead…any missed call could be a plea for help…any half-seen face, a glimpse of familiar clothing, might mean something. There’s always the hope that the person might, one day, just walk back into the room: while there’s (not usually) this hope for the dead, the missing could always come back. Possibly. Perhaps. The indie drama Wish You Were Here (2012) deals with the pain and fear that accompanies just such a disappearance and how the resulting actions can stir some very dark waters.

The film begins, in happier times, with two couples jaunting around south Cambodia in one of those sequences that looks alarmingly like a credit card commercial: husband and wife, Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice Flannery (co-scripter Felicity Price), are expecting child number three and want one more chance to let their hair down, while Alice’s sister, Steph (Teresa Palmer), has just met a dreamy new guy, Jeremy (Antony Starr), who wants to treat her (and Alice and Dave, by extension) to an all-expenses-paid vacation in southeast Asia. They seem to be having a blast, sampling the local cuisine, swimming, dancing, visiting beautiful temples and smoke-filled dance clubs. It’s a really kinetic, fun sequence that ends with a shell-shocked Dave stumbling around, on his own, in a desolate countryside. Something has happened, it would seem…something very bad.

We find out that Dave and Alice are now back home in Sydney, while Steph has stayed behind to try to figure out what happened to Jeremy, who’s been missing for nine days, at that point. Both Dave and Alice seem concerned, as befits the situation, but life must go on and they have their hands a bit full. When Steph is unexpectedly ejected from Cambodia for making a nuisance of herself, she returns to Dave and Alice, setting off a chain-reaction of unpleasant revelations, not the least of which is that she and Dave had themselves a little sex on the beach on the night that Jeremy disappeared. As this revelation tears apart Alice, Dave and their two small children, darker revelations begin to seep to the surface: does Dave know more about Jeremy’s disappearance than he’s letting on? Why are the local police so interested in Jeremy’s import/export business? And where, exactly, did Dave go on the night that Jeremy vanished?

For the most part, Wish You Were Here is a suspenseful, involving feature-film debut from Australian actor Kieran Darcy-Smith, co-scripted with his wife, actress Felicity Price. Darcy-Smith is known for brutal crime films like The Square (2008) and Animal Kingdom (2010) and there’s definitely a lot of that grit found in his directorial debut, although the meat of the story is still focused around Dave’s infidelity and the impact it has on the family. To be honest, however, I actually felt this split focus to be a bit of a problem: the missing-person storyline, which technically provides the base of the film, is a much more interesting story than the rather tired infidelity angle. I do understand the need to add weight and emotional heft to the film but the cheating aspect quickly subsumed the mystery angle, to the discredit of both. On the one hand, not enough attention gets paid to the idea of Jeremy being missing in a foreign country, under mysterious circumstances, while undue attention is paid to the back-and-forth between Alice and Dave over his affair with Steph. It’s not spoiling anything to say that the two aspects of the film don’t actually have anything to with each other, unless on a purely coincidental level: removing one aspect or the other wouldn’t have radically changed the opposing storyline, even if it would have made for a much different film.

The acting, especially from Edgerton and Price, is outstanding across the board, although I really wish that Antony Starr would have been utilized more. I’ve been a big fan of Starr since his work on the Australian TV series Outrageous Fortune and was looking forward to seeing him on the big screen. Alas, his role amounts to scarcely more than a cameo: playing the missing guy in a movie about a missing guy generally means that you spend large chunks of time off-camera…unless you’re Tom Hanks, that is. Starr isn’t Hanks but he does bring a breezy, easy-going quality to Jeremy that also leaves room for a little ambivalence: how “nice” of a nice guy is Jeremy, really? Teresa Palmer, as Steph, is the only potential buzzkill in the cast: she vacillates between shrill and wheedling, which assures that her character is almost never sympathetic. Most of the time, you just want to tell her to get on with it, already, which plays as much into Palmer’s performance as to the character.

Darcy-Smith ends up with a pretty good look for the film, although his cinematographer overuses certain filters and visual effects, a tendency which occasionally makes it difficult to differentiate between the films numerous flashbacks and the “present day.” These flashbacks become a bit of a problem as the film progresses: often, it’s difficult to tell what timeframe we’re in and there was one specific instance where I thought Dave had flown back to Cambodia on his own (which would have confused the hell out of me) only to find out later that this was more footage from the night Jeremy died. This seemed needlessly confusing, especially since the film wasn’t trying to tell a particularly tricky story: it just seemed like an overly clunky way to do it, that’s all.

Wish You Were Here isn’t an amazing film and it’s definitely not an original film but it is a consistently well-done and absorbing film. There is some genuine tension to the mystery and I’ll be honest: I didn’t guess the “truth,” which made me pretty happy. The resolution is no “Sixth Sense”-esque mind-bender but it is a fairly nifty revelation and repaints many previous scenes with a new air of menace. All in all, the film is a decent drama about a fractured couple working to rebuild their marriage while looking for their missing friend. If it could have been a much better film as an all-in mystery about looking for Jeremy (something along the lines of Midnight Express (1978) from the outside, perhaps), that’s a bit of a shame.

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