Braff explores family, Jewish identity in ‘Wish I Was Here’

‘Wish I Was Here’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Zach Braff made a splash with his directorial debut, the 2004 indie hit “Garden State,” in which the director/star dealt with issues holding back a young man from embarking on life. In Braff’s new film, “Wish I Was Here,” another offbeat comedy with a serious heart, he plays a husband and father who is unable to move forward to the next phase of life and must confront his father’s serious illness.   

Aiden Bloom (Braff) and his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), have been struggling to hold on financially in Los Angeles since Aiden’s acting career stalled. They still live in a nice suburban house, but their pool hasn’t been used in years and the yard is neglected. The one bright spot is that Aiden’s widower father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin of “Homeland”), is paying for their kids Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) to attend a private school – an Orthodox Jewish one. 

Gabe is serious about his Jewish faith, but his son is not, yet Aiden has acquiesced to his father’s preference about his grandchildren’s religious education – as long as grandpa is paying. When Aiden gets a call from the school that they are behind in their payments, he scoffs. It soon emerges that the reason Gabe has stopped paying the school’s tuition is that his health is declining and he feels he needs all his funds to battle a cancer that has returned. 

The film, co-written by Braff and his brother Adam, also stars Josh Gad as Aiden’s reclusive brother Noah, who spends his time online as an obsessive gamer, and Ashley Greene as Noah’s neighbor Janine. 

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The story is at once specifically about this Jewish family and a universal tale. The film is not autobiographical, but it was inspired by conversations about life and death among the Braff brothers and their father. It also was shaped by the brothers’ experiences, especially those of Adam as a parent. 

A truly independent film, it was initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and debuted to positive  audience response at the Sundance Film Festival.

Aiden has been content to go through life in a rut of endless auditions while leaving his wife to earn their living. His father’s illness upends this comfortable decline and forces him to confront family issues he has avoided. 

Because the tuition payments have stopped, his children have to leave their religious school for a public one, and they are devastated. So Aiden tries to home-school them. His efforts yield some comic results but also the realization that he has a rare opportunity to grow closer to them.

“Wish I Was Here” – the title, a play on the old postcard line “wish you were here,” refers to being truly present in one’s life – mixes dry and sometimes goofy humor with a touching exploration of family dynamics, adult responsibilities and self-discovery. While “Garden State” focused on a young person’s challenge to strike out on his own, this film focuses on family, meeting the responsibilities of parenthood and caring for a fading parent.  

The two brothers have very different relationships with their father and different lives, but both are avoiding adult life. Aiden finds himself at a crossroads in his career, in his marriage and as a parent at the same time he faces changes in his relationships with his father and brother. 

As Aiden confronts his role as parent and son, he reflects on his faith. He embraces his Jewish identity but has never felt the same way about it as does his father. As his father’s health declines, Aiden revisits his beliefs and grapples with his and his father’s differing views. 

“Wish I Was Here” is by turns funny and poignant, but the script is also refreshingly original. Most enjoyable are its unusual characters and how it avoids stereotypes. The cast is superb. Braff not only shows a sure hand as director, he also turns in a fine performance, as do Hudson as Aiden’s steady, supportive wife  and Patinkin as his disappointed, often disapproving father. King and Gagnon as the children are solid as they explore some of the challenges of early adolescence. But the most striking performance might be Gad as the brilliant, broken Noah.

Not everything in the film works well, most notably a running theme about Aiden’s daydream of being a heroic space knight, although it serves a purpose in the end. 

Ten years passed between Braff’s first directorial effort and this new film. With this strong showing for his sophomore effort, let’s hope we do not have to wait so long for the next film from this talented writer, director and actor.