Four Australian travelers vacation to Cambodia. Three come back, one goes missing. Sounds like the plot of another unfortunate Turistas-style horror shocker but Wish You Were Here is, thankfully, far from it. The directorial debut from Aussie character actor Kieran Darcy-Smith is a stinging relationship drama framed as a sharp thriller, edited like a superb mystery. Darcy-Smith and co-writer/co-star Felicity Price aim high in loosening genres and tightening the emotional screws, and their construct works.
Wish You Were Here actually begins after the trip — making it feel different right away — with the opening credit sequence highlighting the week-long getaway. The surf. The sand. The drinking. And, finally, a shirtless Joel Edgerton as Dave, blood on his face, stumbling confused through an empty field in the early dawn. And we’re off.
When Darcy-Smith and Price’s script get us back to Sydney, we have almost no establishing information and few clues as to what’s gone down. The story carefully reveals the stable family life shared by Dave, Alice (Price, the film’s stunning lead), and their kids, and then works to unravel it. We snatch short conversations about missing friend Jeremy (Antony Starr), glimpse a bloodied wallet, and spy Dave’s shaky tension during private phone calls.
Here’s the trick: The film’s narrative focus is not what you think it will be. The story gets flipped on its side, Jeremy’s disappearance almost a needling diversion, an effectively painful add-on to what’s about to become a world of hurt for the three remaining vacationers. To comment further would be too revealing, but Wish You Were Here essentially gives us two parallel lines of conflict, from two different genres, one fueling the other with raw nerves exposed for all involved.
Acting strength is critical to pull this off, and the trio of players here is very strong. Edgerton, as the character most likely to know all, is a powder keg of pent-up regret. He plays it stoic and secretive, with hints of shame that seem to just trickle from his person. Edgerton’s tough-guy acting résumé only adds impact to Dave’s weaknesses. Watching him here, and then as Tom Buchanan in the bombast that is The Great Gatsby, illustrates an acting range that may currently be overlooked.
As Dave’s better half, Felicity Price is riveting, a gentle, glowing mom who’s trying to keep her composure while losing her nerves. Price has to cover the most psychological ground for the film, and she does it with firm control, even when her own screenplay throws a contrived curveball at her. Teresa Palmer, as Alice’s sister, works well within a smaller role, and early scenes identifying the two women’s relationship have the natural, off-rhythm feel Darcy-Smith uses to guide Wish You Were Here.
Using intermittent flashbacks, the director gets us closer and closer to the truth about that week in Cambodia, stepping up the editing pace to tease, and then finally pay off the mystery. The revelation has an abrupt, quiet tone, an about-face from the standard fare that would milk the hell out of the moment just to oversell it. Wish You Were Here is more concerned with the psyche of the aftermath, the cold shock that comes with returning to reality without all your control intact.
Despite an unsatisfying couple of final scenes, Wish You Were Here is consistently arresting. It’s a peek at the power of heavy consequences, an amped-up version of that dreary feeling you get after vacation. And it makes a hell of a good cinematic summer break.