The passing of one’s 30s — when “formative years” turn into “the rest of your life” — is tricky dramatic ground for a narrative. Most effective stories are told at a moment of change, and the melancholy of settling down offers little in the way of forks in the road. But Wish You Were Here, the debut feature of director and co-writer Kieran Darcy-Smith, locates its characters in a state of rebellion, having them respond to their plunge into middle age with a vacation in Cambodia.
Two couples go: Dave and Alice Flannery (Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price) hope to have one last vacation before their unborn third child sucks away the last of their lives’ spontaneity; Alice’s sister Steph and her boyfriend Jeremy are just continuing their easygoing lifestyle. But during a night of heavy drinking and partying (and a little ecstasy), Jeremy disappears, and back in Australia the others fret about their missing friends.
Then comes a fallout of and guilt and marital uncertainty. Wish You Were Here punishes its four principles all out of proportion for daring to feel youthful. In that sense, it’s like a slasher movie for 30-somethings, with a comparative dearth of killings corresponding to deflated hormones. The farther a character lands from the norms of a nuclear family man/woman, the harder the movie comes down on them, giving the whole affair an uncomfortably puritanical moral sheen.
But the film’s big gimmick is its nonlinear structure. Each scene alternates its temporal alignment, from pre-disappearance to post-disappearance. From time to time, it can provide illuminating, tragic moments of contrast, as in one scene where characters go from a tearful point-of-no-return in their friendship to laughing and trying on hats. Generally, though, it doesn’t rise above gimmickry. Unlike, say, The Social Network, which deepened its depositional flashbacks with the accumulation of details and story that added new wrinkles to the hearings’ emotional shell games, Wish You Were Here’s time-hopping is a more superficial dramatic gesture. As an attempt to counterpoint moments of regret with their past genesis, it fails, because it does not connect the wants and needs of characters’ mistakes with the anguish and self-loathing that comes later.
The nonlinear structure even manages to undermine the mystery element, the film’s only other generic aberration. The temporal schizophrenics could have traded a sense of the characters’ inner lives for a sense of puzzling out what happened, but the Darcy-Smith plays his cards very close to his chest, making the back-and-forth more trouble than its worth. And when you strip off its unsatisfying plot and go-nowhere structure, little remains of Wish You Were Here but a functional drama.