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It’s hard not to smile during the opening moments of Wish You Were Here but then no more. The five minute montage is a combination of The Hangover’s drunken antics, visuals out of a Cambodia travel brochure, and an old couple’s scrapbook of romantic highlights. Then, the story begins as a half-naked man stumbles through a wasteland with a look that no hangover cure can rid.
It’s in this moment that we know Dave Flannery has done or seen something awful. He will tell someone and a 90 minute recovery process will begin, except he doesn’t.
Wish You Were Here
Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
I soon forgave the film and Flannery (played by Animal Kingdom’s Joel Edgerton) and almost forgot the dreamlike incident. The film pulls off this illusion seamlessly through its clever non-linear storytelling and editing, which never bothers to bore audiences with excessive establishing shots as it jumps from different times and locations. Soon other conflicts are established and the inevitable unraveling of the mystery that is at the plot’s core becomes prolonged but not at the loss of expanding on character sympathy and development.
I’m building a mystery myself here, so let me spell out the synopsis for you: An Australian couple travel to Cambodia with the wife’s sister and her 37 year old boyfriend who has business there. They party hard and wake up with one less 37 year old boyfriend. Drugs are to blame … maybe.
Now, don’t you feel special? You’ve figured out the plot. You KNOW how this ends, but that’s not really the point. The point is in knowing how it unfolds and it unfolds brilliantly. By jumping between scenes in the past and present, the film establishes an uneasy atmosphere that hovers over the film’s early scenes of an ideal family life. Flannery and wife Alice (Felicity Price) have two very charming kids — hell, everyone is charming in this film (except those unsavory Cambodians, never trust them!!!)
As the holiday in Cambodia plays-out, I soon understood that my viewpoint into this tragic tale isn’t Flannery, an under-spoken alcoholic with a collective cool, but Alice, the unreasonably patient and kind housewife. She is the honest, goodhearted one in the story who you can rely on. Well, until she discovers that her husband cheated on her with her younger sister, played perfectly by Teresa Palmer. As the mystery surrounding the missing boyfriend unravels, the family bonds in the present unfurl. The film reaches an early climax as an intense shouting match is paired with some brutal imagery in Cambodia. When Flannery repeats, “I can’t breath” you know exactly how he feels.
Wish You Were Here is a positively gorgeous film. It’s shot from the perspective of a voyeur always looming in the distance, but it never sacrifices showing off its scenic locales. Yet, the editing, performances, and cinematography always demand that your eyes never wander too far into the distance. By the time you reach the film’s unnerving final act, it’s easy to forget how pretty it all falls apart.
Animal Kingdom was a film that made me wonder if there was something more to its genius than its cast and crew — like, maybe, Australia? It’d be premature to claim that Australia has entered a new age of cinema, but Wish You Were Here does its part to build momentum toward that reality. The film isn’t without its flaws: Two jarring events near the end are either random dream events or laughably depicted realities that don’t have a proper setup or resolution. Then there is the larger problem that once you know the truth of Flannery’s holiday, it’s hard to look back on his decision-making and not feel a bit flustered. “Why weren’t these actions taken sooner?” you may ask.
Between its mystery and non-linear storytelling, it’s easy to see how Wish You Were Here could have fallen victim to cheap gimmickry. While it’s storytelling devices are see-through at times, the overall craft put into every performance and technical role elevates this film. It’s the rare film that hits you with constant emotional surprise, despite the revelations being predictable at times. Sometimes the truth of the moment cuts deeper than any unforeseen event possibly could.