Ten years after Garden State, the film everyone loved in 2004 and now loves to hate (something that I don’t get the appeal of, personally. Why waste your time moaning about something you don’t like?), Zach Braff is back with another white man-child problems, indie pop infused dramedy, Wish I Was Here. Braff’s become a bit of a punching bag in recent times – Garden State is the type of film that was new, groundbreaking and almost genre-starting in 2004, mixing together the Peter Pan children of the 80s and 90s with self-indulgent autobiography, and a post-Woody Allen neuroticism. But like the first iteration of any new product, it’s not necessarily the best. It doesn’t have a lot of emotional staying power or depth, and sometimes is so loaded in weird Wes Anderson-wannabe moments that it’s jarring. But its lasting influence is undeniable, even helping coin a trope that has been stock in indie films ever since – the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, now found in a number of films from (500) Days of Summerand Elizabethtown.
So when Braff announced his Kickstarter campaign last year, when the internet was in a fever of Veronica Mars movie induced“this is the future of film”-ness, one had to wonder if he was deliberately setting out for criticism. After all, Garden State can be said to have basically changed the nature of Sundance, where it was snapped up in a joint venture by two mini-majors in a lucrative deal. So it seemed odd that Braff jumped from one new idea of film financing and sale to another, when he could have comfortably made his film with no Kickstarter assistance. And that was before he released a The Shins-laden trailer! Critics quickly found another reason to tear him down and start writing their bad reviews months in advance of its premiere at Sundance.
But I must digress from the legions of dissenters that are so rabidly against this film, because I enjoyed it, much more so thanGarden State. With a decade between drinks and the addition of a new writing partner, a lot has been improved upon since Braff’s first venture into reflective, philosophical voice-overed middle aged white-male dreamer-ness that is basically a continuation of his last film, angst and all. The first scene (a fantasy character that we revisit numerous times throughout the film), may bring a sense of dread at what’s to come, but luckily, the only way from there is up. While Garden State was never especially atmospheric, sweeping you up into its vibe, Wish I Was Here possesses a kind of inherent passionate warmth that makes it quite easy (if you like the plot, which you will know by watching the trailer) to grab onto. In fact, Braff’s tale of a middle aged man who is struggling to find his identity (yeah, I know, I’ve heard that one before) while he deals with a crisis and homeschools his kids in some life lessons (which includes test drives in Aston Martin cars and trips to buy purple wigs) is surprisingly very moving at times and different to what I expected. It’s, at times, laugh out loud funny (particularly when one of the kids keeps pulling out a power drill in a handful of moments). It makes you cry. It makes your heart soar. It’s so much fun. This is literally a spiritual sequel, balancing bucketloads of quirk, indieness (technical term, guys), and well, yet another film with white men being supported in their dreams by women (I know. Luckily, Kate Hudson is a great actor and her character is comparatively much more shaded than Natalie Portman’s in Garden State, who I could not stand. I’ll take the progress I can get) with a lot more moving moments.
Above all though, Wish I Was Here is thoroughly entertaining (so many quotable parts!), disarming, and emotional, even erring on the more serious side of things at times with quite a lot of success, achieved through some great performances, particularly from Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, who play Hudson and Braff’s kids. It’s a lovely little fantasy and escape for 100 minutes, the kind of neat and tidy, Instagram-inspired photographed film with a beating heart that I can’t help but love. Damn, it won me over from the second scene.