[To commemorate the limited theatrical release of Wish I Was Here, we are re-posting this review of the film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival]
Wish I Was Here
Director: Zach Braff
Release Date: January 18, 2014 (Sundance)
Almost exactly 10 years after Zach Braff’s surprise directorial debut won over both Sundance audiences and general film audiences, his sophomore feature, Wish I Was Here, premiered amidst a wave of excitement and controversy. Last year, the actor/director opened a Kickstarter campaign to fund Wish I Was Here and was met with backlash due to the decision and perceived notion that a “millionaire” shouldn’t ask for public funding. Nevertheless, the pre-production of Wish I Was Here is but a footnote and not the focus of the film nor this review.
What does matter is this: 10 years after Garden State surprised audiences and critics alike, was Braff able to strike lightning with his sophomore effort, or was all of the good will that resulted from Largeman and Sam’s whirlwind romance the pinnacle of Braff’s writing and directing abilities? Read on and find out.
Aidan (Braff) and Sarah (Kate Hudson) are a couple living in LA with two kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King). Sarah supports the family while Aidan struggles to find work as an actor. His father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), also provides financial support, as well as pays tuition for the kids’ enrollment in a Jewish school. However, when his cancer relapses and he gambles his money on a New Age treatment, Aidan is forced to homeschool the kids while juggling auditions. As Gabe’s health begins to regress, Aidan’s attempts to reunite his brother, Noah (Josh Gad), with their father go refuted.
Wish I Was Here has echoes of Garden State, especially with Aidan’s fleeting success as an actor. While the previous film was a romance about discovering one’s identity, Wish I Was Here is about family bonds. 10 years is a long time, and Braff’s maturation as a director and storyteller show in the film. There are still a few distinct cues that Braff still follows (the most obvious being the music direction), which is welcome and familiar. However, some of the more ambitious touches in the film should have been cut. For instance, Aidan’s noted as a daydreamer, illustrated by mixed live-action/CG scenes in which he imagines himself as a space explorer. These scenes are unwelcome distractions and detract from the story. The subplot involving Noah and his own self-discovery also feels rushed and not as fleshed-out as it could have been.
Wish I Was Here illustrates Braff’s growth as an artist, and any fears of a sophomore slump were quickly dismayed. In saying that, the film feels very “safe.” It doesn’t outshine Garden State, but it isn’t held back by it, either. There’s definitely a sense of progression found in Wish I Was Here, both in Braff’s writing and directing, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him tackle both focuses head-on.