Wish I Was Here-1When one considers directorial feature debuts, Garden State (on a personal level, at least) is one that can be declared one of the more confident debuts from a young director. The director in question is, of course, Zach Braff. Back in 2004, at the height of his Scrubs fame, Braff used his star influence to develop a very personal movie of a young struggling actor, returning home in the wake of his mother’s death. The tone struck and the themes explored made Garden State a mature meditation on the crises that a young twenty-something can experience at a point in life where nothing seems to be working out quite as you planned (I’m sure I’ll hit that soon). Yet, despite the success of Garden State, it has taken Braff 10 years to direct again. Famously employing the aides of Kickstarter, it would seem Braff took his time in order to protect his vision. And that vision is pretty much Garden State, just 10 years later. Wish I Was Here may be thematically familiar, but it once again stands as an example of how confident a film-maker Braff truly is.

Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor, husband, and father who is on the wrong side of 30. As he continues to pursue his flailing thespian career, he relies on his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson) to provide for the family, while his father (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition for his children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) to attend a Jewish Orthodox Private School. However, when his father becomes ill and can no longer afford Grace and Tucker’s tuition, Aidan decides to home school his children. Through his time with them, he will come to learn more about the people in his life, while discovering who he truly is as a man, as well as reconciling with his emotionally restrictive father and his difficult brother, Noah (Josh Gad).Wish I Was Here-2

Wish I Was Here seems to follow very much in the same vein as Garden State, in that it appears to be semi-autobiographical. Co-written with his brother, Adam, Wish I Was Here explores many familial relationships. Focussing predominantly on the connection (or lack of) between a father and his children, the Braff Brother’s script finds time to touch upon the relationships between siblings, between husband and wife, and one’s relationship with their own self; how one chooses to live with themselves and how they treat those around them, whilst also finding time to chuck in some observations on Judaism.

Thematically, Braff aims high, almost setting himself up to fail. It seems strange to criticize a film for being overly ambitious, as God knows, more films in mainstream cinema could benefit from a little bit of added verve and vigour, but that is the case here with Braff’s second directorial feature. He sets up so many relationships and so many conflicts that there is no way everything can be resolved with the depth that Braff seems to be wanting to achieve within the 106 minute runtime. That proves to be the case, as the final act wraps everything up all a bit too neatly with a saccharine coating for it to be fulfilling and insightful. Which is a great shame, as the characters that Braff develops are engaging and welcomingly genuine.

Braff is a dependable lead, doing his usual shtick, albeit with a more world-weary stance, and while he gives himself the majority of the big speeches, he does allow his talented cast to shine in their own moments of drama and comedy. King and Gagnon provide two very natural and charming child performances, marking them as two emerging performers worth keeping an eye on. The two highlights of the cast, however, come wish_ain the form of Hudson and Patinkin. Hudson, in particular, has not been this impressive for quite some time, radiating wisdom, beauty and grace, whilst striking a warm and genuine connection with Braff. Patinkin delivers the most complex performance, portraying a man who has never been openly emotional with his sons, and whom suddenly finds himself having to face up to his own mortality and his shortcomings as a father. One scene between Hudson and Patinkin stands out as the highlight in both performance and writing, stirring emotion and providing the most satisfying exploration of familial relationships from a surprising coupling; a father and his daughter-in-law.

While Braff may tread familiar thematical ground without conjuring up anything new, he does so with style and simply stunning imagery. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography and Braff’s careful framing and camera movements present images of nostalgia and warmth, with the characters foregrounding the impressive landscapes that Los Angeles has to offer. As was also the case with Garden State, Braff has curated yet another irresistible soundtrack, with tracks from the likes of Bon Iver, Paul Simon, and Badly Drawn Boy aiding many a scene.wish-i-was-here-2014-movie-wallpaper

I hope Braff doesn’t take another 10 years to direct again. While the reception to this film has been somewhat lukewarm (both critically, and in regards to the Kickstarter backlash), I hope the experience has allowed Braff to brush away the directorial cobwebs and start to become more active behind the camera,  fully delivering on the promise shown in both this and Garden State (or could the case be that he peaked with his debut?). It is a flawed second film and not as fresh or as engaging as his break-out indie debut, but Wish I Was Here stands as a heartfelt and noble attempt to navigate through human relationships and delve into the complex emotions that we express towards those that we love.

3/5- While it suffers from being too familiar and over-ambitious, Braff’s second feature is none the less a warm, good-natured, and charming gaze on family, love, and life in general.