Zach Braff is the kind of guy who should be making films more often than every 10 years. “Garden State” put the very notion of “finding yourself” indie films on the map, at least for a certain generation. “Wish I Was Here” comes one too many of those films later to have the same kind of impact, but Braff’s ability to emotionally connect to his audience still rings true.
One theory to explain the 10-year gap could well be how intensely personal his films are. There are so many autobiographical projections in his stories, with “Garden State” being deeply connected to his home state of New Jersey and “Wish I Was Here” playing heavily off his Jewish roots. The added dimension of Braff’s brother Adam co-writing only enhances the movie’s genuine, personal feeling.
The film takes place on the opposite coast. Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a 35-year-old father of two struggling to be an actor in L.A. while his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson) works a tedious data job. In order to send their kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a good school, they rely on help from Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who insisted they go to an Orthodox Jewish day school.
When Gabe reveals his cancer has come back, he tells Aidan that he’s decided to put the rest of his money into treatment, meaning his grandkids can no longer afford to attend their school. After the school refuses to provide any aid to the Blooms because Aidan’s career is his “choice” and other families have greater needs, Sarah suggests that Aidan homeschool his kids, and their adventure of self-discovery begins.
The moment the film comes out of the gate it announces its intentions to be very existentially straightforward with the audience. Braff’s voice-over narration recalls childhood memories of when he and his brother (Josh Gad) would pretend they were heroes and saying ‘what if we’re not the heroes, what if we’re the ones meant to be saved?’ “Wish I Was Here” is anything but subtle, but it doesn’t mean Braff’s not on to something.
Although the plot revolves around the homeschooling concept, that’s far from the film’s core, or what anyone will remember about it long after seeing it. Instead, it’s about a man trying to reconcile the dreams of his younger years with the truth of his present. It’s about learning not to be afraid, and about remembering what’s important in life. You could almost go so far as to say these are plot points, because that’s how much they guide the movie.
Yet for all this thematic heavy-handedness, Braff cuts to the core with a intuitive, humorous and thoughtful script and an eclectic cast that has latched on to his style of humor mixed with emotional transparency. Patinkin, for example, give such an earnest portrayal of a grandfather where you can’t stand him and love him all the same. Hudson hasn’t seemed this down to earth in her entire career. King, barely a teenager, is sure to be around for a long time.
So there might not be much room for thematic interpretation, but the issues and emotions of “Wish I Was Here” are incredibly true to life, albeit occasionally exaggerated for comedic effect. Aidan deals with the issues of being a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and an aspiring actor. These challenges are universal and they play out with a certain degree of thoughtfulness and sincerity. As such, “Wish I Was Here” is the kind of crowd-pleaser that will resonate with just about anyone, no matter how much you “like” it. It is too truthful to dismiss.
Wish I Was Here
Directed by Zach Braff
Written by Zach and Adam Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Joey King, Kate Hudson, Pierce Gagnon