There's nothing worse than a vacation gone bad, and few vacations go quite as badly as the one in Wish You Were Here, the tense Australian drama that opens Friday, June 7, at the Ken Cinema and runs for one week only. Essentially, it's the anti-Hangover, because the morning-after pain and regret experienced by each character feels very real and not at all funny. The film is held together by a screenplay that's clear without being precisely linear, doling out information in a dramatic manner that's the very opposite of dramatic irony. We know there's more to the story than meets the eye, but until the characters choose to divulge their secrets, we're kept in the dark.
It begins just before an ill-fated Cambodian vacation taken by a pair of Australian couples. Yes, Cambodia, a country that is trying to redefine itself as a tourist destination despite its poverty and the enormous number of buried landmines that have been sitting around since that not-so-long-ago conflict, waiting for some poor unsuspecting farmer to take a wrong step.
On the flip side, Cambodia has lovely beaches and beautiful temples, and it's inexpensive. Also, in this case, Jeremy (Antony Starr) does a lot of importing to Australia from there, and since he's got a trip planned, he invites his new girlfriend, Steph (Teresa Palmer), to come along. Steph likes Jeremy, but she's nervous about going by herself, so she talks to her sister, Alice (Felicity Price), who manages to convince her husband, Dave (Joel Edgerton), to take a holiday. Alice is pregnant with their third child, and she thinks this might be her last chance to take a break before the baby arrives.
It all starts out nice enough, and the four are having a great time, but after one drug-fueled late-night party, Jeremy goes missing, and soon Dave, Alice and Steph are back in Sydney, trying to return to their lives and wondering what the hell happened over there. Actually, it's the viewer who does most of the wondering—we're pretty sure Dave knows much more than he's letting on. There are secrets and lies to be found in Wish You Were Here, and some of them are on the surface while others remain hidden, forced to emerge as the tension mounts between the three survivors and questions continue to swirl around Jeremy's fate.
The non-linear storytelling device has been done to death, but Price and her husband, director Kieran Darcy-Smith, who wrote the screenplay together, pull it off by telling us both stories simultaneously: what really happened in Cambodia and what happens amid the fallout back home. The result is a taut, smart feature debut from Darcy-Smith, anchored by storytelling that keeps you hooked, even as it ratchets up the dread you feel for the characters.
Price and Edgerton are terrific as a couple whose relationship is justifiably shattered. Price isn't as well known to U.S. audiences, but it's great to see Edgerton, who's recently been playing Americans in movies like The Thing and Baz Luhrmann's recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby, return to his homeland and his dramatic roots. He's an interesting actor, but the studio films he's made recently simply haven't provided him with roles as interesting as those he's had Down Under (the exception being the surprisingly awesome mixed-martial-arts movie Warrior).
Wish You Were Here is exactly the sort of movie I wish we'd see more of: intelligent, well-crafted, well-acted and focused on solid storytelling. Sure, it's a bad trip for the characters but a great one for the audience.