Wish I Was Here

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<i>Wish I Was Here</i>

Zach Braff’s latest feature film, Wish I Was Here—a follow-up to his 2004 writing and directorial debut Garden State—amassed 46,520 backers on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. (About 400 of them are listed in the production/press notes.) Braff’s use of nontraditional funding stirred some backlash from critics who thought a celebrity’s use of the online tool would take away from lower-profile projects from unknown artists.

But Braff has always maintained that he chose an alternative route to retain creative control—and the film’s final cut seems to vindicate his decision and the faith of the thousands of backers, too. Even with its imperfections, Wish I Was Here is a funny, moving film that captures the foibles of modern family life while breezily exploring existential themes, from spirituality to aging parents and happiness.

In a quintessential L.A. story, Braff plays Aidan, a struggling actor who’s supported by his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), a water department analyst. Their two kids, the precocious tween Grace (Joey King) and the younger, rambunctious Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), are enrolled in an Orthodox Jewish school, courtesy of Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). While Aidan’s not particularly religious, he’s made a deal with his father for private school in exchange for the Jewish education.

A cancer diagnosis and subsequent experimental treatment forces Gabe to pull funding for the school, upsetting the family’s delicate status quo. Grace has fully embraced her Orthodoxy and is horrified at the thought of going to public school mid-semester, while Aidan is forced to make some tough choices about his children’s education and his father’s future. He turns to his reclusive brother Noah (Josh Gad) for support, but his brother wants nothing to do with their overbearing, demanding father. Noah would rather spend time designing the ultimate Comic-Con costume to woo his costume designer neighbor, Janine (Ashley Greene).

Aidan decides to home-school his children even though he’s clearly out of his element. During the first day of school, he duct tapes the kids to their chairs, forcing them to watch Levar Burton and Reading Rainbow, which naturally upsets Sarah. The two go out to dinner to talk about and re-evaluate their options; Aidan questions her support of his acting dreams (as his father has none). Sarah, the most patient L.A. wife, ever, gently asks whether he really believes that crunching data is her “dream.” She floors Aidan (and the audience) with Hudson’s perfect delivery of the line: “When did this relationship become solely about supporting your dream?”

The film’s journey follows a man-child as he’s pushed into adulthood. When Aidan’s first introduced, he comes across as an unappealing character. He’s a self-centered actor who’s also not much of a father to his kids. (He swears too much in front of them, smokes joints in the minivan after dropping them off at school, then goes home to pleasure himself while his wife’s at work.) Aidan’s annoyed with people who aren’t supporting his acting career, even though he hasn’t worked in a while. Grown-up topics of religion, spirituality and death are, at first, the furthest from his mind, but there’s a nuanced growth to the character—in both his words and actions—as he prepares for his father’s death. That subtle shift is natural and unforced, unlike some moments in his earlier film.

While technically not a sequel to Garden State, Wish I Was Here has distinctly “Braff-ian” notes as it re-examines the story of a lost soul trying to find his place in the world. Braff has included nods, both overstated and understated, to his first film. No one can miss the empty rack in the doctor’s office with a sign that reads, “This pamphlet could save your life,” (referring, of course, to Natalie Portman’s Garden State line that The Shins’ song “New Slang” will “change your life, I swear.”) When Aidan decides to teach his kids his own way, he takes them on a field trip to camp in the desert. The shot of the three of them standing on the rocks staring into infinity is reminiscent of the earlier film’s quarry scene.

We’d be remiss without mentioning the great use of music to underscore scenes, from Hozier’s “Cherry Wine” as Aidan’s looking at after-death options for his father, to the inclusion of “So Now What,” a new Shins’ song. (We’re also sure that Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child” will find its way back to many viewers’ playlists after the film, too.) In both his feature films, Braff’s understated visual style as a director is complemented by his music choices, leading to an unmistakable tone that’s all his own.

What distinguishes the two films is snappier dialogue and a maturity in storytelling in the latter film, which manages to avoid being maudlin or pretentious. Braff gets close, though, when he makes Grace read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” while he and Tucker fix their backyard fence, or when he includes an unnecessary life-lesson scene in which they visit an Alfa Romeo car dealership to take a test drive. (It seems to only serve as a way to feature Braff’s friend and former Scrubs co-star Donald Faison as a car salesman.) Those moments were borderline cheesy, even in comparison to Braff’s use of animation/fantasy to illustrate his childhood’s astronaut persona.

The cast, particularly Braff, King and Hudson, delivers several emotionally charged and heartfelt moments. (You may need tissues for a few of them.) While the Sarah character doesn’t seem as real as Aidan and Grace—she’s way too understanding of her husband and totally overpaid if her salary supports the four of them in L.A.—Hudson’s terrific performance is entirely convincing.

Two characters who could have used a little more incubation and then screen time were Noah and Janine. There’s much more to Noah and his father’s story that goes untold, and Gad is under-used, especially after watching him during a phone conversation with Grace about Gabe’s impending death. Greene is barely in the film, so why Janine would fall for an almost-hermit like Noah remains a mystery (and we can’t buy the seduction by Comic-Con costume as the only reason).

Despite of what people may think of Braff’s approach to making Wish I Was Here, the film itself is a sweet and, yes, sentimental work that tackles topics of family, religion and aging in relatable ways. Braff has developed a way of capturing the milieu and spirit of the times, and we hope he doesn’t wait another decade to take on his next feature.

Director: Zach Braff
Writers: Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Pierce Gagnon, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene
Release Date: July 18, 2014

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.