Happy beginnings ... Felicity Price, Antony Starr, Teresa Palmer and Joel Edgerton relax before tragedy strikes.
A common criticism of Australian movies is that the scripts are anaemic and the plots meander. But that's definitely not the case with Wish You Were Here, a dramatic mystery about the recriminations stemming from a holidaying Australian's disappearance in Asia.
If anything, Kieran Darcy-Smith's first feature is too disciplined. Just when the movie needs to go for broke, it settles for an orderly conclusion. But a flawed finale doesn't fully detract from the often impressive elements that coalesce beforehand.
From the opening scenes, in which the carefree adventures of two couples holidaying in southern Cambodia - the pregnant Alice (Price) and her husband, Dave (Edgerton), and Alice's younger sister, Steph (Palmer), and her new beau, Jeremy (Antony Starr) - switch from the tourist trail of bars and beach parties at night to a bloodstained, shirtless Dave staggering through the cold dawn light, it's clear something untoward has happened.
The film reveals both the what and the why of the situation in layers, peeled back from guilt and silence, and it makes that process as telling as the actual information.
There's been a spate of Australian family dramas during the past decade in which emotionally bruised sons come home to circle their wary fathers and defensive mothers before they have it out. But in Wish You Were Here, the domestic dynamic feels both biting and authentic. The script, co-written by the husband-and-wife team of Darcy-Smith and Price, has a feel for how distrust becomes a cancer within a marriage and the enmity that can suddenly divide siblings.
It is Jeremy who has disappeared but the truth reflects on all four participants.
When Alice needs to hide from an increasingly uneven Dave at their Sydney home, she absents herself to the bedroom of their two young children, using it as a refuge, and the film does a good job conveying detail visually as conversations falter. There are brief, wordless snatches of the characters in contemplation and the camera stays close to the actors without being shaky.
The cinematographer, Jules O'Loughlin (Kokoda, Sanctum), gives the film a vibrant palette, right down to sunshine streaming through the hair of the performers.
That initial lustre is a reminder of how tenuous the things we take for granted really are.
Little more than 20 minutes in, there is an initial revelation and the tension is ratcheted up with the attention of a federal police officer (Nicholas Cassim) and further flashbacks to the contentious evening.
The characters' actions could be summed up by a line from David Mamet's House of Games: ''The things we want, we can do them or not do them but we can't hide them.''
Wish You Were Here makes you wonder if spontaneous acts are actually premeditated and whether noble gestures are in fact self-serving, and it provides worthy roles for the three leads.
It's a showcase for Price, who displays a slow, combustible anger, and a chance for Palmer, last seen ludicrously snarling at aliens in the formulaic Hollywood flick I Am Number Four, to get her hands on a nuanced part. As Dave, Edgerton is uneasily arresting. The laconic boat builder isn't made for deception and he's panicked from his first days back but Edgerton's performance makes you wonder whether he's growing accustomed to it; you can never fully see through the character.
An extended sequence in the final act is genuinely inspired filmmaking, beginning with a (literal) smash cut from two cars colliding, to two bodies impacting, to scenes that intercut events in Australia and Cambodia. It explains what happened and advances the storyline, as well as accentuating the viewers' understanding of the protagonist through differing notions of mortality. It's terrifically done and at that point, Wish You Were Here feels the equal of an Australian forebear, Ray Lawrence's Lantana. But then, unexpectedly, the film concludes abruptly.
There's a belief that if you tell a story well, final scenes can just be alluded to.
Cate Shortland's Somersault pulled that off but three times at the close of this movie, important meetings are set up and skipped.
At 93 minutes, length isn't an issue, although it could be argued that the audience already knows what will be said. But it's what comes after the explanation that holds dramatic potential and Wish You Were Here is strong enough that you want Darcy-Smith to take that on at least once. As it is, the underdone ending prevents a good film being a great one.
WISH YOU WERE HERE Rated MA, 93 minutes, opens Wednesday. Stars Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price.