Mixing "The Hangover Part II" with the 2001 TIlda Swinton thriller "The Deep End" wouldn't seem like an obvious formula for a movie (or a good way to plan a vacation). But don't tell that to Kieran Darcy-Smith.
The Aussie writer-director of "Wish You Were Here" attempts pretty much that with his new film, which follows a group that returns home to Sydney after a vacation in Southeast Asia where one of them goe missing (and the others carry their share of secrets).
The dramatic thriller was one of several movies that opened the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Thursday night, and as the enthusiastic response at the festival's Library Theater underscored, it may be one of the more commercial pictures ever to kick off this art-house film gathering. (The movie is seeking U.S. distribution; it's hard to imagine a buyer won't take a flyer on it.)
Without giving too much away, it basically unfolds like this: Dave and Alice (Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price, the latter of whom is also Darcy-Smith's real-life wife and screenwriting partner) have an idyllic marriage--two cute kids and a third on the way. Steph (Teresa Palmer) is Alice's pretty and drifter-y younger sister who has begun to date Jeremy (Anthony Starr), a convivial if shady international businessman. All seems well for the foursome when they decide to travel to Cambodia, then embark on a night of drug-fueled partying.
But soon after Dave and Alice return home to their children, it becomes clear to us that Jeremy has disappeared. As he remains missing, the movie delves into how the other three deal with the fallout--"Hangover!" (minus the comedy)--in other words, how much to reveal to the police, and to each other. Before long, the secrets from that night start to tear at Dave and Alice's marriage. Their role as parents becomes trickier too.
Darcy-Smith doles out information in small, tantalizing chunks, mainly by periodically flashing back to the vacation. But it would be a simplification to describe "Wish You Were Here" only in mystery terms. How much each of the characters is morally responsible for what they're inflicting on the others is equally on the filmmakers' minds; Edgerton's Dave, a strong silent type who may know more than he's letting on, is perhaps the most ambiguous.
"What we found delicate," the actor said at a question-and-answer session after the film, "was to not push Dave too far from the audience's empathy, but also to allow us to mistrust him." Indeed, if "The Hangover" comes to mind, so does "The Deep End," another movie in which characters harbor a secret about a crime for the sake of--or is it at great cost to?--their family.
Dramatic thrillers can be tough terrain. Tilt things in a character direction and you lose the suspense; get too caught up in the mystery and you forget about the people. But the filmmakers said they consciously tried to make a movie that worked on both levels.
"I wanted to write a film about Gen-X growing up and having kids and having to deal with the drag of being responsible," Price said at the Q&A.
But, she added, she also was struck by a story from a mutual friend who went on a vacation that ended in similarly murky circumstances. "I was fascinated with what would happen to the other three people," she said.
Then Darcy-Smith, sharing an impulse that film buyers will surely appreciate, added that this didn't mean ignoring the thriller elements. "It's about kicking a ball up in the air and keeping the audience...caring."
Photo: Felicity Price and Teresa Palmer in "Wish You Were Here." Credit: Sundance Film Festival