With a storyline that coils around and around itself until viewers may have trouble breathing, “Wish You Were Here” is the incandescent feature debut of helmer Kieran Darcy-Smith, and a rare kind of showcase for leads Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) and co-writer Felicity Price as a couple whose South Asian vacation comes back to haunt them. Taut construction, deft acting and a gift for keeping auds off balance will make this Aussie drama a winner in offshore release and a springboard for its veteran screenwriter-cum-director.Edgerton, who also appeared as one of the gangster siblings in 2010′s critically acclaimed Down Under drama “Animal Kingdom, plays Dave Flannery, who’s enjoying a spur-of-the-moment vacation at a Cambodian beach resort with his wife, Alice (Price); her sister, Steph (Teresa Palmer); and Teresa’s new boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr). Matters seem to be leaning in a casually frenetic, vaguely predictable First-World-exploits-Third-World direction — the couples drink to excess, dance to excess, spend the cheap local currency to excess, and then take ecstasy, which sends the evening into a new and delirious direction; without abandoning clarity, Jason Ballantine’s editing imparts a sense of sensual chaos. But the next thing anyone knows, the Flannerys are home in Sydney with their kids (Otto Page, Isabelle Austin-Boyd), and Jeremy is a missing person. The troubled looks, particularly Dave’s furrowed brow, indicate Jeremy isn’t simply lost. Besides the drug use, which Dave, Steph and Alice don’t want to mention to the Australian police, Dave slept with Steph, which neither wants to mention to Alice (although she soon finds out). But there is much left to be learned: As written by Price and husband Darcy-Smith, the details unfold like the petals of a particularly poisonous blossom, opening, collapsing and revealing more and more about an evening that, although receding in time, is making itself more toxic. The entire incident seethes with the power to derail Dave and Alice’s marriage, their children’s home, Alice and Steph’s relationship, and anyone’s ability to locate Jeremy. The emotional authenticity of “Wish You Were Here” is rooted in its utter lack of interest in making anyone too sympathetic. The facts of the story are what they are: Dave slept with his wife’s sister and Steph slept with her sister’s husband, so neither stands in a particularly flattering light. But Alice, who has every reason to be pissed off and every right to our sympathy, doesn’t quite earn it, and it’s the calculated result of Price’s thesping; there are no innocents in this mess (besides the kids), only degrees of culpability and gradations of bad behavior. Darcy-Smith even puts a dislikable spin on Jeremy’s parents (Valerie Bader, Pip Miller), who should be the objects of pity but instead come off as uncomfortably shallow. Despite its dubious inhabitants, the film consistently entertains by throwing the kinds of curves one should see coming but doesn’t. When a mysterious car starts tailing Dave around Sydney, the story seems to be entering a new realm, but that’s only because the visual and narrative storytelling is artful enough that viewers are conscious only of what’s pertinent to the tale as it moves toward revelation. It’s unlikely that auds will be able to predict the outcome, or that they’ll even be inclined to try: Things move with an alacrity that will give viewers plenty to think about in the moment. Production values are tops.
A Screen Australia presentation in association with Screen New South Wales, Level K and Hopscotch Films of an Aquarius Films production in association with Blue-Tongue Films. (International sales: Level K, Copenhagen). Produced by Angie Fielder. Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith. Screenplay, Darcy-Smith, Felicity Price.
Camera (color), Jules O'Loughlin; editor, Jason Ballantine; music, Tim Rogers, Rosie Chase; production designer, Alex Holmes; costume designer, Joanna Park; sound (Dolby Digital), Brooke Trezise; casting, Kirsty McGregor. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 19, 2012. Running time: 93 MIN.
Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, Antony Starr, Otto Page, Isabelle Austin-Boyd, Valerie Bader, Pip Miller. (English, Vietnamese dialogue)