Wish I Was Here is Zach Braff’s sophomore film and a vague follow-up to his first film Garden State. Braff’s main character Aidan is a 35 year old man who comes face to face with his existence in the light of his father’s impending death. The movie explores a myriad of topics, including family dynamics, marriage, raising children, faith and the dreaded question of what to do with one’s life. The movie has some stand out performances. Kate Hudson is brilliant as the matriarch of the family,gracefully loving her husband and his hard to please father. Joey King is perfect as the oldest daughter Grace, whose world is turned upside down throughout the film. While not perfect, it is surely well worth your summer dollars and constitutes another solid movie from Braff.
What You Leave Behind
Adian’s father Gabe is dying. Gabe has tried to raise two sons as well as he could, supporting and loving them, all while trying to pass on his values. It is interesting to see throughout the film the clash of generations. The movie perfectly portrays a first generation that was unable to pass on its values to their children. Gabe, who is Jewish, was unable to pass this faith and belief system on to his sons. He is also a firm believer in hard work and fulfilling your potential with the gifts that God has given you. Gabe’s sons are a disappointment to him in many ways as Aidan still pursues a nonexistent acting career and his younger son Noah squanders his genius “blogging”.
Where the film gets really interesting is in its comparison of Gabe’s parenting and Aidan’s. Generally Aidan is not shown to be the best parent. He swears constantly in front of his kids, pays very little attention to them in the beginning of the film and has no values of his own to pass on. Aidan’s values seem to be nothing more than pursing happiness. In the movie, there is a conversation between Aidan and a rabbi. Aidan asks if God is not worried about his happiness and dreams to which the rabbi replies, no. God desires Aidan to take care of his family, the rabbi tells him. Aidan is so wrapped up in himself he has forgotten that it is his responsibility to raise his children, to train them up and teach them about life. Yet he and his wife are ill equipped to do so because they are unsure as to what they even believe about life itself. There is a sadness in this inability to pass on anything substantial to children because of the innate selfishness of an umoored existence.
In Aidan’s pursuit of acting he has abdicated his role as provider for his family. In a “modern” world the sexes have been equalized and there are many who would see nothing wrong with the woman being the sole bread-winner in a family. Yet Aidan has abandoned more than the provision of material things, he has resigned leadership of his children and his family. He has thrust upon his wife the sole responsibility of providing for the family as he pursues his dreams, while taking away her ability to pursue the dreams she has. She even asks him at one point, “When did this relationship become solely about supporting your dreams?”. He has side-lined her in his selfishness. As she has sacrificed for him, believing in him and supporting him, he has reciprocated nothing, leaving her exhausted mentally and physically.
It is a sad picture of the state of manhood. Manhood has nothing to do with beers, hunting and video games. Manhood is about responsibility. Manhood is about putting others before yourself, especially those you have joined your life with or brought into the world. What is nice about the film is that Aidan does begin to grasp what it means to truly be a man, and he begins to live that out for his wife and children.
The movie is filled with conversations about God, but one of them stuck out more than the others. Aidan, who is struggling with losing his father and the turmoil it has caused with his brother, goes to see a rabbi. The rabbi tells him not to worry so much about labels for god, god can be whatever he wants. If Aidan feels like it’s the cosmos and it’s trying to tell him something, he needs to listen. Really this advice is not all that different than any episode of the Oprah show or a Starbucks coffee sleeve these days with Oprah’s “words of wisdom”.
The problem with this advice is very clear; if you make god in your image, if it is only a construct of what you think or desire, it’s useless in the end. A god of your own making has absolutely no authority or weight, even in your own life. In the end, such a god amounts only to what you want it to be, and that is meaningless to speak into your life when you have no idea who you are or what life is about. Only a god who transcends humanity and our ideas can possibly be worth listening to, otherwise it might as well be the great spaghetti monster in the sky.
Aidan says that he and his brother wanted to be heroes when they were little. They would play for hours in the back yard, saving the universe. He asks a poignant question at the beginning and ending of the film, “What if we aimed a little high? What if we were not the saviors, but the everyday people needing to be saved?”. This is such a profound question with the resounding answer of, yes. Yes, we are the everyday people needing to be saved.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6 ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 ESV)
Films often try to have it both ways, telling us to live for our dreams while at the same time telling us to be responsible. Wish I Was Here definitely wants to have it both ways. Gabe constantly gets on to Aidan for not providing better for his family. Aidan’s response, which is also backed up by his wife, is that he is living for his dreams–dreams that come at the expense of everyone around him. This film, more than most, portrays the immense courage it takes to live out the day in, day out responsibilities of a father or a mother. Real courage is demonstrated through facing one’s obligations head on with grace and love. There is nothing braver or more loving than laying down one’s wants, desires or life for the betterment of another. Aidan learns this the hard way as he loses his father, but through that experience he learns not to take for granted his own family.
The movie is at its best when, in the end, it shows the characters finding their passions leading them in directions they had not considered before. Aidan, who has single-mindedly pursued acting, has his kindness to a fellow actor pay off when he is invited to become an acting teacher. This effectively reinforces the message that life is not about selfishly following our dreams, but living for the betterment of those around us.
Wish I Was Here is a good movie that has a lot to say. The messages do get muddled in characters that as a friend put it, are one minute the worst life has to offer yet are transformed by the end. There is a lot here and many of the answers are not satisfying completely, but the questions themselves are worth wrestling with.