Life looks pretty peachy for a quartet of vacationing Australians at the start of “Wish You Were Here.” Dancing, drinking, wandering through markets and touring Cambodian beaches, the two couples appear to be enjoying the trip of a lifetime. If only they had heeded an important rule of international travel: Leave the drugs at home.
After a night of ecstasy and alcohol, the dream vacation goes terribly awry. One of the travelers disappears, and the other three bring back their own supply of secrets when they return to Sydney.
The first feature for director Kieran Darcy-Smith, who wrote the screenplay with wife Felicity Price, is a confident debut. The mysteries unravel at a steady pace and the dialogue and acting feel naturalistic, adding up to a taut and progressively tangled portrait of familial relations.
Price plays Alice, a pregnant mother of two, married to Dave (Joel Edgerton). It turns out the pair had been cajoled into the beach vacation by Alice’s sister, Steph (Teresa Palmer), who was accompanying her new boyfriend, a successful businessman named Jeremy (Antony Starr). After Jeremy vanishes during the film’s opening moments, the remaining vacationers are mostly tight-lipped about the details given their drug usage on the night in question. Alice seems optimistic Jeremy will turn up alive, but she’s also oblivious to the fact that her husband and sister seem to know more than they let on. Meanwhile, the three characters have different ideas about how to respond to inquiries from federal officers.
While much of the film takes place in the post-vacation reality in Australia, the story occasionally jumps back to Cambodia, offering tiny, tantalizing vignettes that eventually paint a more complete picture of the days leading up to the ill-fated night.
The stories are masterfully woven together. While the tension from that earlier thread builds, so too does the anxiety in the story’s current reality, as the relationships between Steph, Alice and Dave deteriorate. For the audience, the fever-pitch moment of the Cambodian chronology coincides with the Australian climax, creating an astonishing intensity.
The lighting is often moody, and the direction has a grittiness that complements the narrative. But the film’s great assets turn out to be Price and Edgerton, the latter of whom has been increasingly prevalent in stateside releases, including “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Great Gatsby.” The skilled actors inspire compassion, even when their characters’ actions are less than admirable.
If the film’s conclusion feels a bit too tidy, the offense seems forgivable in order to give these flawed yet human characters, who have suffered abundantly over the course of the film, their resolution. Better still, the ending is neither outlandish nor foreseeable, which is its own impressive accomplishment.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains drug use, sexual situations and violence. 89 minutes.