Wish I Was Here is igniting discussion for how writer/director Zach Braff launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to make the film. However, the drama is also generating buzz for one of its major themes: a man’s struggle with his Jewish faith.
In Wish I Was Here, Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor and father of two kids attending a yeshiva. As he strives to reconnect with his religious roots, his devout father Saul (Mandy Patinkin) becomes bed-ridden due to cancer.
Unfortunately, Saul can no longer help pay for his grandkids’ private school. Aidan has to figure out how to keep with his dying father’s wishes to raise his kids religiously while finding a spirituality he can connect with.
Braff, who co-wrote the film with older brother Adam, has spoken about how his parents raised him in a kosher, observant New Jersey home. Braff decided not to remain religious after his youth. His new drama, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was inspired by spiritual questions Braff encountered later in his life, long after he moved away from his faith.
Accordingly, Wish I Was Here’s best scenes are its solemn moments, such as when Braff and Patinkin’s characters discuss the importance of Judaism.
Young actor Joey King, who plays Braff’s daughter Grace, gives the richest performance in the film. While Aidan does not take his kids’ Jewish education very seriously, Grace is fascinated by Judaism and wants to become more observant.
Grace talks about wearing a sheitel and tells a friend she will not go to his pool party because she wants to be covered, a symbol of modesty that will show her devotion to God. Aidan is initially skeptical of his daughter’s piety but eventually grows to embrace it.
Despite these moments, Wish I Was Here falters when it tries to use Jewish content and customs for easy laughs. In one scene, a rabbi at the private school rides a segway and crashes into a wall. In another moment, one of Grace’s friends asks her if the Jews run Hollywood. Grace’s younger brother Tucker, played by Looper’s Pierce Gagnon, finds Hebrew school boring and nods off during prayers.
Braff sometimes plays the traditional Jewish customs for laughs, but this often feels disrespectful. Despite these shortcomings, Wish I Was Here is an engaging look at a man’s exploration of his faith and his mission to find his own kind of spirituality.
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Wish I Was Here’s plot bears similarity to Lullaby, another star-studded indie drama that focused on a Jewish family. (Lullaby is available on DVD July 29.)
Written and directed by New York artist Andrew Levitas, Lullaby focuses on estranged rock star Jonathan (played by Garrett Hedlund), who returns to the hospital bed of his dying father, Robert (Richard Jenkins).
Robert wants to gather his immediate family for a Passover seder. Writer/director Andrew Levitas, making his film debut, uses the holiday as a metaphor for how Robert wants his family to let him go, so that he can find salvation in death.
Both Wish I Was Here and Lullaby focus on a young Jewish man’s reluctance to remain faithful, even as he stands at the bedside of his devout, dying father. The schism between a parent’s close connection to faith and the more secular whims of their child is explored in detail in both films.
Lullaby is a deeper and less uneven film than Wish I Was Here, but both films show there is room for poignant and powerful Jewish stories in independent American cinema.