Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff’s Kickstarted second feature as writer/director, is a strange little movie. Braff has said that if you like his first feature, Garden State, and the television show in which he starred, Scrubs, you’ll like this. That may be true. Though I am familiar with both, I am an ardent fan of neither. Scrubs, in particular, I find entertaining in short bursts, but it’s not the kind of show I can pull up on Netflix to watch five or six episodes at a time. The rhythm of the show and the kind of jokes featured are the same in every episode. I imagine it worked great when it was on broadcast television in weekly installments, but too much at one time begins to feel monotonous for me.
Wish I Was Here is like a two hour long episode of Scrubs based on the plot of Garden State. Aidan (a scruffy Braff) is an out-of-work actor trying to figure out who he is while dealing with the (impending) death of a parent. Sprinkled throughout are little surreal moments used both to show what’s happening in Aidan’s subconscious and to add moments of levity. The film blends these moments into the real-life events of the film in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to know which moments are “real” and which are merely imagined. The effect is meant to be charming. I found it unsettling. I kept imagining that Aiden had suffered a mental brake-down right before the movie began, we were witnessing his mind fighting for sanity, and the film was going to end with a big reveal that he’d been in a mental health facility the entire time. That didn’t happen, of course.
Unlike in Garden State, Zach Braff’s character has a wife and kids this time, and his wife and daughter especially are the best part of the film. Joey King (Grace, Aidan’s thirteen year-old daughter) is exceptionally good. She plays Grace as an intelligent ingenue who is on the cusp of figuring out what it means to come into her own. King voiced the China Girl in the recent Wizard of Oz prequel and, for me, stole the film conveying a sense of fragile strength more real than anything else in the film. She brings a similar vulnerability and conviction to Wish I Was Here, and I’ll look forward to seeing more of her in future films.
Kate Hudson also appears as Aidan’s wife, Sarah. Hudson is better here than I’ve ever seen her. Sarah’s sexual harassment at work storyline seems like a bit of a pervert ex machina included to make sure the story worked out happily in the end, and I never really bought her as bedraggled (but that’s more a problem of lighting, makeup, and wardrobe than it is her performance), but she stands out in every scene she shares with another of the principal cast members as the most convicted, complicated, and compelling character in the room. A movie about Grace and her mother, Sarah, as portrayed by Joey King and Kate Hudson would have been a remarkably good film.
Ultimately, WIsh I Was Here, if it is anything, is a genuine film. Earnestness practically drips off the screen. It’s a bit saccharine, a bit contrived, and neither the surreal/real motif nor the scenes themselves every really gel, but the overall inclination is toward optimistic realism about the importance of supportive, patient relationships, the real value of dreams (not as gods for which one gives up everything but as offerings that become emblems of love as one gives them up for others), what one can expect out of life (resplendent mundanity), and how one can learn to be happy regardless of how things turn out (be present).
Like Zach Braff said, if you like Garden State and Scrubs, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t but someone you love does and you find yourself spending time with WIsh I Was Here anyway, be grateful for Joey King and Kate Hudson and know the kind of presence you’re giving your loved one is exactly the kind of thing Zach Braff is trying very earnestly to encourage.