Kieran Darcy-Smith's Wish You Were Here is the kind of film that goes to a great deal of trouble to discombobulate a story that, told straight-ahead, would not amount to much. It tells that story smoothly, and its shifting timeframes certainly hold our interest, as do several sharp, searing performances. But by the time the credits roll, we're not quite sure what all the hubbub was about.
The story begins in Cambodia. Four Australians are enjoying a cheap vacation in a remote resort area. Alice (Felicity Price) and Dave (Joel Edgerton) are married, two kids, a third on the way. Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) invited them along; she's going along with her new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr), who is something of an entrepreneur. One night, they party a bit too hard, and Jeremy disappears. Maybe.
Darcy-Smith unfolds these early scenes with precision and care; he's good at suggesting that things are awry by holding a look a beat too long or catching a conversation in progress. Dave and Alice return to their family, and the unforced naturalism of the scenes with their kids create a quiet intimacy that starkly contrasts the inner turmoil of Dave, who seems to be holding something back from Alice.
A bombshell is dropped. I'll not reveal it here; suffice it to say that the film is, ultimately, not exactly about what its trailers and advance press have indicated it is about, but something more direct and personal. We move back to Cambodia, catching glimpses of the trip, seeing a bit more of this Jeremy, but still not getting a firm grasp of what's hiding behind his enigmatic nature.
The pieces of the puzzle are assembled slowly and methodically, and not without creating some suspense. But, after a time, we start to lost patience--is Darcy-Smith withholding information solely for the sake of withholding information? His short, punchy scenes seldom seem manipulative, not exactly; it's more accurate to say that the audience becomes aware enough of the technique to start to see through it, and perhaps resent it.
This is not to imply that Wish You Were Here is without value. Darcy-Smith co-wrote the screenplay with co-star Felicity Price, and she wrote herself a pip of a role, hard-edged but complex--hers is a tough, terrific performance. Edgerton, so good playing strong, silent types in Animal Kingdom and Warrior, is awfully good as well; much of the film requires him to act not only his character, but his character concealing any number of things. He shines, particularly in a raw, open scene near the end of the film that gives the performance real weight.
But their work is not enough, and neither are Darcy-Smith's flashes of blunt power and quiet resignation. Wish You Were Here tests the viewer's patience; we keep waiting for them to get on with it, to fill in the blanks, to keep the scenes going a few more beats so we finally have a handle on what the hell's going on. And when we finally find out, it can't help but feel anticlimactic--these things always do. The closing scenes amount to an on-screen shrug. Those in the audience are bound to sympathize.