I wanted to like Zach Braff's long awaited follow-up to Garden State, the Kickstarter funded Wish I Was Here,
After experiencing an initial wave of adoration for the film that I continue to regard as one of the last decade's truly great films, Braff has at times as of late also experienced that other side of being a critical darling as Garden State haters have become more vocal and more than a few haters have crawled out of the woodwork to bash Braff's bothering to turn his latest indie effort into a crowdfunded film.
After all, why should a millionaire actor/writer/director ask the public to pay for his pet projects?
Of course, all of these things are trivial and meaningless and petty. Garden State is a damn near perfect film and, quite honestly, with how hard it is to get any significant film project made these days I don't begrudge Braff one iota for having the balls to turn to his legion of fans to bring Wish I Was Here into reality. After all, if it's good enough for LeVar Burton it's good enough for Braff.
The only thing that ultimately matters is whether or not Braff has turned Wish I Was Here into a good film.
There will undoubtedly be those of you who will loathe Wish I Was Here, but I get the strongest sense that Braff's artistic integrity is fully intact and this is exactly the film he intended to make. Wish I Was Here has flaws, but they're honest flaws that seem almost flawlessly woven into the authentic fabric of the film's story and characters. Braff tackles difficult subjects here, but he tackles them in a way that feels far more honest and genuine and even a little bewildered than you could ever expect from a Hollywood film. While it may be perfectly legit for someone to say "Why should Zach Braff seek crowdfunding for his destined for distribution film?," I think the answer is perfectly evident when you're sitting in the theater and realizing that this film has an honesty in tone and voice that is incredibly rare among Hollywood films and, at least my gut tells me, if Braff hadn't crowdfunded this film we'd likely be looking at a very different finished product.
Braff plays Aidan, a young man who actually feels about ten years removed from Braff's Garden State portrayal of a man trying to figure out his own life. In this film, Braff's Aidan isn't figuring out his own life but how his own life fits into the social network he has created for himself that includes his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), and his two children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Sarah is the family's breadwinner, a fact that plays over and over again for Aidan even as he recognizes she's incredibly unhappy doing what she's doing. The kids attend an Orthodox Jewish school paid for by Saul, Aidan'sfather (Mandy Patinkin), who is dealing with his own struggles.
As was true with Garden State, I found myself identifying with Aidan and his journey in Wish I Was Here, a journey that seems to embrace the idea that growing into adulthood isn't a destination and it isn't even about achieving this certain status or job or place or whatever. It's simply about choices, made time and time again, that add up to other choices and that sort of lead us through this labyrinthian journey with stops, starts, wrong turns, right turns, impossible walls, and much more. Aidan is a brilliant character precisely because there's absolutely nothing brilliant about him other than his rich humanity.
Aidan's outer relationships also feel remarkably honest whether we're dealing with his blacksheep brother, Noah (Josh Gad), or the seemingly obscure characters that show up including Jim Parsons as an actor who frequently auditions alongside Aidan and Ashley Greene as a rather interesting costume designer.
Braff, it seems, so clearly visualized Wish I Was Here that nothing feels extraneous. The characters feel necessary. The dialogue feels necessary. The scenes feel necessary. In fact, everything fits so perfectly that such a "perfect fit" may drive some folks a little bit mad.
But, it works.
Joey King, a young actress who has already done some impressive work in films such as White House Down and Crazy Stupid Love, seems fully tapped into what's going on here and people who've ever struggled to verbalize faith struggles will resonate with her characters honest and heartfelt struggles to live into her faith while being true to herself. As Tucker, Pierce Gagnon is equally impressive really fits within this family unit.
Braff is an actor's director and he has a knack for making room for his co-stars to shine. I will confess that I found myself shrugging my shoulders when I heard the news that Kate Hudson had been cast as the female lead in Wish I Was Here, not because of any particular disdain for Ms. Hudson but because it had simply been so long since she'd served up anything resembling a genuine character that felt like a living and breathing human. Sarah does live and breathe and it's almost possible to hear Hudson thinking to herself "Ah, so this is what it's like to truly act again" and she does so with such a simple honesty and heart that you may very well find yourself pulling out Almost Famous again and remembering the performance that made us all realize she truly was her mother's daughter.
If there's an emotional tour-de-force in the film, it likely belongs to Mandy Patinkin as Saul, a character that could have so easily been a caricature yet a character who truly drives home the mastery of Patinkin's vulnerable and emotionally powerful performance. Patinkin doesn't play things too out loud here, a refreshing but not surprising choice given the overall tone of the film, and it's that understated quality that leaves you thinking about Saul long after the closing credits. Josh Gad, as well, gives a performance that is so quietly understated that you don't quite realize how good he is until the film is over and you can't stop thinking about him.
There will be those, of course, who won't appreciate Wish I Was Here and I'd dare say that even Braff's most diehard supporters will find the film a little more intentional than one might expect or even want. Yet, I'd dare say that there's nothing wrong with sitting down and watching a Zach Braff film and getting the sense that you are watching precisely the film that he wanted to make. Braff tackles such powerful themes as faith, family, adulthood, parenting, and so much more but he does so more willing to celebrate the questions than forcefeed the answers.
I suppose that part of me had hoped that Wish I Was Here would feel like the next masterpiece from Zach Braff, another film about life that would blow me away and make me think and feel and reflect for days after watching it. I suppose the fact that such a thing didn't happen could be termed, at least on some mild level, as a disappointment.
It's not. It's really not.
Wish I Was Here is, in some ways, a more mature and thoughtful and emotionally honest follow-up to Garden State than we could have hoped for because Braff seems to embrace the idea that it's not about the perfections or the successes or the destinations but about the decisions, the twists, the turns, the decisions to show up, and the willingness to live into who we are even when who we've become isn't who we wanted to be.
Perfect? Nah. Even better.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic