Review: Zach Braff’s ‘Wish I Was Here’ is an emotional powerhouse

PARK CITY – Certain films show up at festivals or in theaters with targets painted on them.

The best example of that this year at Sundance is Zach Braff's long-awaited follow-up to “Garden State,” and I can understand why. After all, this is the film that he took to Kickstarter, even as people complained about the idea of a millionaire asking people for hand-outs. Beyond that, though, hating “Garden State” has become a cottage industry. The only thing Braff could possibly do to counter all of the naysayers would be to make a genuinely great movie.

Which, thankfully, is exactly what he did.

Co-written with his brother Adam, Braff's “Wish I Was Here” tells the story of Aidan Bloom (Braff), a struggling actor in LA who, in his 30s, is starting to suspect that he has passed his expiration date. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is the primary breadwinner for the family, working at a job she hates, something that Aidan is keenly aware of at all times. His two kids, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), are enrolled in an Orthodox Jewish private school that is paid for by Saul (Mandy Patinkin), Aidan's father. Life seems to constantly conspire to remind Aidan of all the small ways in which he's failed as a husband and a father, and all Aidan can do is grin and bear it.

The thing that surprised me the most about adulthood is how gradually it managed to sneak up on me. I guess I always thought I'd wake up one day and it would be like some switch had been thrown. “Today, I am all grown up. This is as adult as I get.” Instead, it has been a million small moments that have brought me to the life that I am living today, a million different decisions, a million places where choices led me either this way or that. I know that if I'd been carefully engineering my “perfect life,” I would have never done or experienced half of what I have, and I have no doubt I would be poorer for it. I wasn't “ready” to have kids when I did, but I'm not sure anyone ever truly is. I'm not “ready” to watch my parents grapple with aging and health, but who could be? I certainly wasn't “ready” for the difficulties of marriage, and short of going through it, I can't imagine what would even begin to prepare someone for it.

“Wish I Was Here” is about that moment where someone looks around and recognizes that their life is happening. It's not something theoretical. It's not some future event that is being discussed. Life is constant, and it is a contact sport, and you either suit and up wade in and take your bruises, or you miss it. Aidan's brother Noah (Josh Gad) is the family black sheep, living in a mobile home near the beach, spending his days trolling the Internet, and the distance between him and Aidan seems insurmountable. But while Aidan looks more responsible on the surface, he is in a constant state of free fall, making it up as he goes. When Saul comes to him to say that he won't be able to pay for the private school anymore because of his health, it is a shock to Aidan. Saul's grappled with cancer before, but it's back, and it's aggressive this time, and when they have to pull the kids out of school, Aidan steps up to home school them, something which seems like a disastrous notion at first.

Now that I've seen the film, I understand why Braff felt like Kickstarter was the right way to go. This probably could have been made as a studio movie, but it wouldn't look anything like this version of the movie if that was the case. They would have told him to tone down the Jewish material first. They would have ordered him to cut the fantasies that mark the evolution of Aidan's inner life. They certainly wouldn't have let him shoot the movie in and around Los Angeles. Yet, those details are the things that make the film what it is. Yes, he could tell the basic story another way, but any good filmmaker will tell you that what matters most is the voice in which a film is told. You can take the same basic story and ask ten different people to tell it and come up with ten totally different movies, and if those filmmakers are free to make their choices, those ten totally different movies will all reflect who was telling the story and what about it was important to them.

Braff is very good in the lead here, and what I think is most disarming about the film is how the emotional content is dealt with head-on. He doesn't shy away from hard or painful moments, but he tempers them with genuine, warm, character-based humor that doesn't dull the pain so much as it underlines just how much sweet and sour there is in life. This is definitely the work of someone who has lived quite a bit since “Garden State.” That film is very much focused on this one person, stuck in a certain gear, and there is a selfishness to the world view that is appropriate to the story of someone in their 20s. Here, though, Aidan is a guy who is learning just how much of himself he has to be willing to surrender in order to give his kids the life they want and deserve, and he's also realizing just how much he wants his wife to be happy and healthy and whole. This movie is about learning how to redefine yourself when it's no longer just you moving through the world, and one of the reasons it connects as well as it does is because of how well he cast the family. Kate Hudson hasn't played a normal, recognizable human being in a long time, and her work here is honest and sexy and sweet, emotionally open in a way that is bracing. Joey King, who did such nice work in films like “White House Down” and “Oz The Great & Powerful” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” earns the rest of her career with the work she does here as Grace. It is rare to see anyone's struggles with faith depicted in a realistic and recognizable way, and yet Grace's efforts to chart the desires of her heart against the demands of her spiritual heritage end up playing as completely real. Likewise, Pierce Gagnon's been good before, most notably in “Looper,” where he was sort of terrifying, but he just strikes me as a bright, sweet kid here looking to make his voice heard in a family that certainly has no trouble communicating their thoughts.

Even actors who show up in brief roles, like Jim Parsons as a guy who is always at the same auditions as Aidan or Ashley Greene as a cosplay costume designer who has an ongoing antagonism with Noah or Donald Faison as a car salesman, all manage to make strong impressions because there's no wasted time in the film. Everything is written to theme. Everything moves the film forward. When it comes down to the last half-hour, Braff manages a long sustained emotional crescendo packed with both laughs and tears, and it is accomplished work, carefully balanced, beautifully constructed. Yes, he loves to use songs to push emotional buttons, but he has a great ear, and the music works. I'm impressed by how directly he addresses issues of faith in the film, too, and how honest he is about his own lack of concrete answers to difficult questions. My kids are at the age where they accept that Jesus is real the same way the accept that Santa Claus and ghosts are real, and we haven't really had any big conversations yet in which we discuss the difference between faith and facts or in which we've really even dug into the differences between faiths. I try to instill in them a basic respect for why people believe in God, and I have no fear about sharing my own views with them. Those are just big conversations, and I didn't really get serious about my own inquiry until I was older.

Patinkin destroyed me in the movie. He's so good, so understated, and Josh Gad is equally great. I think it's about time that we declare Gad a bit of a national treasure. He is able to play these willfully obtuse characters in a way that still manages to make them seem like people we know, people we like. There is a sweetness to Gad that makes him special, and the longer he and his father resist their reconciliation, the harder it is for either of them to know what to say to make things better.

Beautifully shot, elegantly written, and packed with genuine wisdom, “Wish I Was Here” is a winner across the board. I respect that Braff doesn't feel the need to try to squeeze out a film a year. He waited until he had something new to say, and the wait was more than worth it. I suspect this will not only be a major sale here at the festival, but that it will also get a major release later this year, and I urge you to see the film as soon as possible when it does.

In the meantime, “Wish I Was Here” screens several more times during the Festival, and I'm going to guess we're aren't the only audience that will find ourselves on our feet afterwards.