A montage of colour and sound, of wide smiles, street vendors and beach parties that stretch long in to the night, Wish You Were Here’s opening credit sequence captures exactly why it is that Australian tourists go to South East Asia to lose themselves. Sometimes, however, it’s a more literal disappearance than others. Centred around four friends on holiday in Cambodia who return home one man short, the first film from Australian director Kieran Darcy-Smith, co-written by his wife and lead actress Felicity Price, is a slickly made but unfortunately distracted debut that squanders a compelling premise and a talented cast with a mishandled plot that does not hold much interest.
Price (TV’s Home and Away) and the increasingly ubiquitous Joel Edgerton (Warrior) play Alice and Dave Flannery, a Sydney couple in their thirties who are enticed by Alice’s carefree sister Steph (Teresa Palmer; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) to join her on Cambodian vacation with her new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr; The World’s Fastest Indian), an importer/exporter whose business frequently brings him to the region. But what begins as a week in paradise soon turns into a trip from hell, as the travelers awaken one morning to find that Jeremy is nowhere to be found. Initial searches bear little fruit; it’s only once the remaining trio return to Australia that secrets are uncovered and lies start to slowly unravel.
Strong performances all round do well to sell the drama. Starr provides Jeremy with an air of mystery that helps sell the questions surrounding his vanishing. Price and Palmer, meanwhile, are equally convincing as women trapped by the frustration of answers that will not come. But the best performance belongs to Edgerton. From the get-go it’s clear that Dave knows more than he’s letting on; his wife soon starts to suspect him and the police aren’t all that far behind. Beneath his true-blue exterior, Edgerton embodies his characters nervous desperation. He is a man wracked with indecision, frantic for normalcy and haunted, above all, by guilt.
The trouble is that we don’t know what he feels guilty about. Increasingly, the films enticing mystery is neglected, as story shifts frustratingly away from this plotline to focus on the disintegrating home-life of Dave and Alice. Had Price and Darcy-Smith wanted to make this domestic drama the crux of their story, they would have been better off revealing Jeremy’s fate far sooner. That way, audiences might be able to appreciate the reason behind Dave’s secrecy, rather than wallowing in doubt without tension. Fluid cinematography and editing dips us in and out of flashbacks, but it lacks the hypnotic effect of the recent Martha Marcy May Marlene. Absent too is that films’ suffocating atmosphere; without it, the ambiguity of the narrative frustrates rather than fascinates.
As it stands, a second watch might improve the experience, but one feels little motivation to give it the chance. Wish You Were Here is well acted, and technically proficient enough to make me excited for Darcy-Smith’s future in the Australian film industry. But the story isn’t consistently interesting enough to justify the obfuscating structure.