A man and a pregnant woman lay on the beach, soaking in the sun and talking. Alice (Felicity Price) asks Jeremy (Antony Starr) if he could go anywhere where would he go, and he answers simply that he would stay there.
The “there” in question is a small town on the southwestern shores of Cambodia, and after a brief montage of two couples enjoying a week free of responsibility we see them celebrating their last night there with some illicit pills. The next morning is a blur as Alice’s husband, Dave (Joel Edgerton), wanders a dawn-lit field, disheveled and bloodied. Jeremy meanwhile, instigator of the trip and brand new boyfriend to Alice’s sister, Steph (Teresa Palmer), has gone missing.
Wish You Were Here is a dramatic thriller that explores guilt, doubt and responsibility through its various relationships. Husband to wife, sister to sister, and stranger to stranger are pairings that get tested by way of a mystery involving one man’s disappearance and the truth hiding just below the surface. There’s an interesting story here, but much of its power is neutered by a structure heavily reliant on flashback reveals. Happily, thanks in large part to the performances, there’s still enough juice left to make for an engaging-enough watch.
Director/co-writer Kieran Darcy-Smith and co-writer/star Price set their film in 2010 for little discernible reason in that it appears to have no effect on the story, but the couples’ vacation spot could hardly have been better suited. The Cambodian beach town isn’t quite a lawless frontier, but for English-speaking foreigners parts of the town seem to constantly edge up against unexpected danger. Alcohol and drugs understandably exacerbate the situation, as do flashes of cash, but the script wisely offers a wealth of possibilities when it comes to what can go wrong on such a trip.
Dramas between the quartet come to light, some big and some small, as tensions build between husband and wife and the sisters. Jeremy was an unknown quantity to Alice and Dave before the trip leading to more suspicions and questions between them and from the police.
The elements of a solid mystery are present, but the aspect of the script that’s far less effective is its insistence on playing a game of back and forth with the present day constantly giving way to flashbacks. There’s less a sense of active discovery on the part of the three who return home to Australia than there is of simply doling out the truth. The trio, along with the local police, are curious as to the truth back in Cambodia, but it rarely feels like any of them are searching for it as opposed to simply wondering what happened. Present day drama cuts to a flashback then back to the present and so on until the frequency and intensity of the flashbacks finally reveal what we’ve been waiting to see.
The reliance on flashbacks also hurts the film’s first act as the initial jump between then and now is jarring at first. The situation, Jeremy’s disappearance, slowly comes to light, but for too many minutes we’re left watching characters behaving seemingly normal and feeling as if a dramatic beat has been missed. We’re back on track soon enough, but it brings the necessity of so many flashbacks into question. The mystery demands some of them obviously, but the overuse of them seems to quell the suspense on more than one occasion.
Edgerton gets the most screentime here, and he makes strong use of it with a performance that wavers intentionally between the stoic and the emotional. His face has always had a slight softness to it, but his eyes often hint at something darker within. Price has slightly less to do, but she does well with a character whose look of innocence may be little more than an expectant mother’s glow. Palmer meanwhile gets to dig deeper emotionally than we may be used to seeing her do, but she manages it quite well in a small but pivotal role.
Wish You Were Here is an engaging-enough mystery with some strong performances to anchor it. The mystery at its core may lack some conclusive punch, but it builds and holds up well throughout the film. Viewers will most likely care more before the reveal than they will after, but it remains a trip worth taking.
The Upside: Manages to maintain mystery throughout; well acted; Teresa Palmer deserves more work
The Downside: Some oddly unanswered questions; wrap up possibly too neat
On the Side: Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price are husband and wife.