Sundance Diary: Aussie Thriller Wish You Were Here Opens Fest in ‘Excruciating’ Style

That was excruciating,” exhaled director Kieran Darcy-Smith as the lights came up on the Sundance opening night premiere of his first feature, the Australian dramatic thriller Wish You Were Here. The theater buzzed with appreciation, sure enough, and the film’s emotional blows strike as sharply thanks to strong performances by Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price. But movies like these almost always prompt that irksome question: Are we all at risk of suffering a case of the film festival goggles?

Wish You Were Here follows two Aussie couples (Edgerton and Price, Antony Starr and Teresa Palmer) who go on holiday in Southeast Asia only to see one of their party go missing, with ramifications that ripple out like shockwaves when they return home with fried nerves and secrets galore. Shot beautifully in Australia and Cambodia, it’s a slow-burn character drama that begins as a missing persons tale before switching gears to domestic drama/paranoia thriller in its rapidly escalating last act, doling out bits of information about what really happened on that last drug-fueled night.

It’s easy to see why Wish You Were Here was chosen to open the festival; just two years ago the Aussie import Animal Kingdom premiered at Sundance, leading the charge for a new wave of Australian cinema. Wish You Were Here unites Animal Kingdom actors Darcy-Smith and Edgerton, whose star has risen considerably in the past few years, under the Blue-Tongue Films banner they founded with Edgerton’s brother Nash. But while there’s a lot to like in Here, it doesn’t live up to David Michôd’s explosive 2010 feature debut.

The film flashes between moments in time: Married couple David and Alice (Edgerton and Price) and Alice’s sister Steph (Palmer) struggle to adjust to normal life but are plagued by memories of the night Steph’s boyfriend Jeremy (Starr) disappeared. Are there clues to his fate in their foggy recollections? Did he willingly leave everything behind, or did something awful happen to him? What begins as a somber exploration of survivor’s guilt – inspired by a similar event that happened to mutual friends of Price and Darcy-Smith when two couples went on vacation and returned minus a member of their party – unfolds into a far less realistic thriller that throws almost every cliché imaginable at the screen.

Still, the performances are so uniformly impressive that they often overshadow the plot machinations, if only for those times when we’re lost in the crush of a devastated face, or a desperate, tragically human moment. Edgerton in particular does great subtle, tortured work; his David is a family man roiling with conflicting emotions, slowly losing his grasp on his own psyche. Price, who co-wrote the script with husband Darcy-Smith, admitted to writing the film partly to give herself a great role; as a result Wish You Were Here ably highlights her talents as Alice, who finds her marriage to David unraveling in the wake of their friend’s disappearance.

Unfortunately, in the service of giving the leads meaty acting bits to play out, the film relies too heavily on soap opera-like plot devices, shortchanging characters like Palmer’s reckless Steph in favor of upping the dramatic complications. (Palmer nevertheless does her best with a role that deserves more exploration and explanation.) Some of these moments hit hard, and effectively, but it says something that with an 83-minute runtime Wish You Were Here feels exhaustively laden with too many twists and turns and melodramatic events.

In the immediate afterglow of Sundance’s opening night (which saw three additional films premiere to mostly positive reactions: Searching for Sugar Man, Hello I Must Be Going, and Queen of Versailles) the audience reaction to Wish You Were Here was quite warm, with Twitter reactions ranging from mixed to positive over its performances and cutting emotional impact. But fast-forward to an eventual release and I can see it being mashed, wrongfully, into the couples-on-holiday-thriller subgenre previously populated by your Turistas and Perfect Getaways. It’s possible the “From the stars of Animal Kingdom” tag bumps it beyond simple genre categorization, but does it deserve to be placed into the same terrain as that vicious breath of fresh air? Not quite. Here is a beautifully made but flawed directorial debut for Darcy-Smith and certainly an acting showcase for its cast, but it demonstrates the cardinal rule of watching movies at festivals, where anticipation and atmosphere can inflate a film’s profile: Don’t blow your wad on a film that’s not quite up to snuff when the festival’s just starting.

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