Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Empathy is a rare achievement in film, something that needs to be hard-earned and justified in the framework of the narrative. Wish I Was Here makes the audience care about its characters because of their importance to the film’s emotional core. The story rarely wanders away from the paths of the characters, only occasionally meandering down paths that feel a bit unfocused in terms of their breadth and reach. Zach Braff’s film is a bit easy on its characters, too, particularly its central character played by the aforementioned writer-director, but the supporting crew rounds out a film that touches on love, life, death, and the struggles of living toward one’s dream. It’s never a fully cohesive film, but it works because of those themes and the way they tie together in a joyous celebration of life. Even in the wake of loss, love and living life to its fullest must persist.
The film centers on Aidan (Zach Braff), a married actor with two kids struggling to survive in an economically trying time. His wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), works in an office making all of the money for the family while Aidan struggles to find acting gigs around Los Angeles. Their kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King), attend a Jewish private school because of the money their grandfather, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), puts toward their education. When Gabe’s cancer comes back from remission, he decides to put his money toward alternative treatment instead of funding the kids’ education. This puts Aidan in a troubled state, causing him to start homeschooling the kids while trying to find sustainable work. His brother, Noah (Josh Gad), is no help with any of us, a genius that lives in a trailer that his mother gave him before she died. Him and Aidan deal with constant torment from their father who seems disappointed in everything they do.
Life is difficult. That seems to be the gist of Braff’s work over the years, articulating that in different ways by emphasizing the nature of death and the way that life has an aimless nature to it all. Inherently that shouldn’t work in a narrative film since there needs to be a driving thematic force reinforced by surrounding subplots and ideas. Aimlessness doesn’t work that well with that concept. But somehow Braff pulls it off as writer, director, and actor, proving capable on all fronts by showcasing the tumultuous and haphazard way we live life on a day-to-day basis. There’s a scene that shows the way that Braff links ideas, with him discussing his wife’s work and how much she seems to love it, and then cutting to her disgruntled at work and dealing with borderline sexual harassment from a cubicle partner. Nothing is as good or as happy as anyone seems to make it.
The performances are sublime and the dialogue thought-provoking. Braff creates an urgency around his character and his hope to reform his life; unfortunately, he doesn’t follow through impactfully to make the character fully change. Patinkin and Hudson are exceptional in their roles. Gabe is a complex character with regrets and a sadness about how much he feels he has failed his family; Patinkin is an expert at these roles and excels. Hudson is a surprisingly strong, subtle force that creates her own strength from providing guidance for a family when the father doesn’t seem to be taking full initiative. The child actors, particularly Joey King, are marvelous. The film’s writing never fully brings together every idea, but tackles death with emotional heft and gravitas. The most important thing about Wish I Was Here is that it’s a compassionate film about compassionate characters. It’s far from perfect, but it cares. That’s rare in today’s cinema, and its ambition is impressive through all of its faults.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)