“I know you don’t believe in God. But believe in family.”
Ten years ago, Zach Braff wowed audiences and critics alike with his indie dramedy, Garden State, a film about loss, family, and finding yourself. The film was his directoral debut, and had been eagerly waiting to see what Braff would do next with his sophomore effort. But as Braff pushed forward with his newest film, Wish I Was Here, he couldn’t get anyone to stand behind him to make the movie he wanted. So Braff turned used his own money, while also turning to his fans on Kickstarter, to fund the movie he wanted to get made. It was an unprecedented move, and one that came under scrutiny by many. But really, regardless of how many feel about how the film was made, it matters how the film turns out, and thankfully Wish I Was Here is a wonderful, moving, and fun film that works as a perfect companion piece to Garden State.
Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is an actor who is stuck in a rut. He can’t seem to get a job, his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is his family’s sole provider, who is slaving away in a dead end job, his kids (Joey King, Pierce Gagnon) go to an expensive Jewish private school they can’t afford. His father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) helps pay the bill, but when his cancer comes back, he has to cut the funds so he can try and get an experimental treatment to save his life. Aidan’s life begins to free fall, as he tries to right himself, hold his family together, and turns to home schooling his children, as he is faced with what mortality is, and what family truly means.
Zach Braff teamed with his brother Adam Braff to write the screenplay for Wish I Was Here, and the film really seems to be a personal one. A lot of the father-son relationships, the search for yourself, and what it means to have faith and what you believe all seem to be pulled from their own lives, and are transplanted into the film beautifully. Zach’s direction has actually grown quite a bit in the time since Garden State, and it shows here. He has a real familiarity and comfort in the director’s chair, and he has a certain style and vibe that really comes off the screen. The film feels like a natural step up from Garden State, while complementing it at the same time. It’s really a spiritual sequel to the film, and a lot of the themes and tones from that film are continued here. But really, Braff has really put a lot of himself into the film, and it shows here, and it’s great to see him coming into his own as a filmmaker.
Directing a film and running a production can be hard, but it can be even harder when you’re starring in the film as well. But that really doesn’t seem to hinder Zach’s performance as Aidan, which may be one his best roles to date. Braff absolutely owns the role, and he brings so much emotion and charisma to the character, you really pull for him to come out on top. His children, played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, are wonderful to watch. King is really growing as an actress, and a scene she shares on the phone with Josh Gad’s Noah is actually one of the most emotional of the film, and she brings so much life to her character Grace. She plays off Pierce Gagnon, who plays her brother Tucker, very well, and they share a real familiarity and bond that makes it feel like they could be real siblings. Gagnon steals a lot of his scenes in the film, and he really brings a cute and fun performance to Tucker. He’s just a kid who loves to be ridiculous, and still sees a lot of wonder in the world, and Gagnon really embodies that. Josh Gad is also good as the estranged brother Noah, who is a genius, but never really did anything with it. It was good to see him really getting a chance to push his dramatic chops, and Gad actually really shines in those scenes. It would be great to see him pursue more roles like that.
As good as they are though, it’s really Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin who steal this film though, because they bring incredible power house performances to their characters. Hudson’s character Sarah feels so much hope and pain, and she plays the role with earnest. As the matriarch of the family, and the one who really holds the family up, she is fighting a losing battle with her job, while her husband and children seem to be free falling. It’s her best performance since Almost Famous, and she’s just pure joy to watch. Mandy Patinkin is also incredible as Gabe, a man who is facing his own mortality, while trying to make things right with his family before he dies. There’s a real sense of dread, sadness, hope, and happiness all rolled into his character, and anytime he is on screen, you can’t help but watch in awe. He commands the cameras, and owns every bit, and it’s wonderful to see him getting a chance to really flesh out a character like this to life. He plays off every other actor and actress so well in the film, but the strongest comes between a scene between he and Hudson in his hospital room. The two are electric together, and the scene has so much emotion it’s hard to forget.
The film has a very serious nature about nature and finding yourself, but the film also has a heart of gold and has a fun side as well. The comedy in the film really works, and really helps alleviate the growing drama throughout. The scenes between Aidan and his children, as they really begin to come together and find themselves in their homeschooling are so beautiful and fun, and really bringing a sense of wonder and happiness that works so well. They feel real, and it’s great to see a film that makes the small moments in life the most important, because those are the ones that we take so much for granted. This whole film really brings the idea of God and faith to a forefront as well, and what it really means for the characters in the film. Each one seems to be trying to find not just themselves, but a higher meaning in life as well. It’s interesting and really moving as they all go through this journey, some finding peace with a God they believe in, while others finding the happiness they need in family instead.
Some may find the film overly sappy and emotional, and for them it may be. But for others, this may hit them right in the heart, depending on where you are in your life. It’s not really cloying or overly fake, it just feels natural. The only real problem with the film is that it drags just a tiny bit in the middle. There’s a few minor nitpicks as well, such as Noah’s love interest, who doesn’t really have a bigger role in the film, which would have been welcome. It would have been nice to see his character find not just family again, but love as well, and watch as it plays out. But really it’s very small nitpicks overall in the grand scheme of the film.
Wish I Was Here is a fantastic, moving, fun, and emotional film that really fires on all cylinders. The cast is excellent across the board, with Hudson and Patinkin really shinning in their respective roles. Braff has really grown as a director, and he has really poured himself into the film. Overall, it is a wonderful companion piece to Garden State, and a great movie in its own right, and one that asks the big questions about what it means to have faith, finding yourself, and what family really means.