There’s an idea that one should never compare their daily struggles with someone else’s highlight reel. I forget where it popped up on social media or who wrote it, but it’s a smart thought. As we toil away at our own lives, the muck of things can pile up, thereby making it seem that the things we see online, on the street, and among friends, are somehow better than what we have. After roughly 13 years, writer/director Nicholas Tomnay (The Perfect Host) brings a new project to Fantastic Fest 2023, What You Wish For, utilizing the lies we tell ourselves about others in darkly comedic fashion, wherein one’s desires always come at a cost and they’re often held right out of frame.
What would you do if you could escape from your life by seamlessly sliding into someone else’s? This is the question Ryan (Nick Stahl) asks himself when he hops a plane to visit his old friend Jack (Brian Groh) at a remote Latin American villa as he, Jack, prepares to welcome five guests for whom he shall cook. Everything about Jack’s life seems so much better: the house, the clients, the pay, all of it richer and more fulfilling than what he’s running away from. But not everything is at it seems and Ryan discovers this when the opportunity to disappear arises and he takes it with both hands.
What You Wish For is a tricky film to explore without spoiling the surprises that make this twisty thriller deliciously stressful. It opens with Ryan exiting an airport in a place where he doesn’t speak the language, the only clue that he’s not necessarily where he belongs, the text he receives implying that our guy is on the run. Yet, moments later, he’s picked up by a driver holding a card with his name on it, indicating he’s expected. Quickly, Tomnay’s script establishes that Ryan is in trouble and this trip is more than it appears. Especially as he dodges questions from his old friend Jack, a dry tension forms, the two trying to close the gap created by time as the former culinary school friends drifted apart. Except Jack is a man with his own secrets, which Ryan would love to know even though respectfully giving them distance. As played by Stahl (Disturbing Behavior) and Groh (Breaking), we believe that these are the kinds of friends who, despite time, pick right up where they leave off, indicating an intimacy, a closeness that might offer shelter for each other in times of crisis, if only they’d open themselves up to the possibility. But Tomnay isn’t interested in the easy thing; he wants to explore the hard things, the tricky things, the dark things, and, to do that, secrets must be kept, illusions must be maintained, and Ryan must be placed in a position where salvation comes too easily.
Aiding in the illusions of safety, of abundance, of sanctuary, even as messages from afar plague Ryan, are the selection of location and the cinematography that accompanies it. Though the specific location isn’t identified in the film, Ryan mentions being taken out into the jungle, the views from Jack’s villa are beautiful, a character mentions it being near the equator, and the locals speak Spanish (based on another character’s statement). Just about everywhere Ryan goes, there’s something lovely to observe, the cinematography from Mateo Guzmán (Land and Shade) never quite heightening the look into the hyperreal, yet never reducing the natural greens of the flora or the beautiful blues of the sky. Rather than adding some kind of sheen or filter to suggest a skewed perspective or to create a false reality, what we see is what Ryan sees: a life enjoyed by Jack that’s as far from average or expected as can be. What does offer the hint and suggestion that, perhaps, Ryan has evaded the proverbial pan and landed straight into hellfire is the score co-created by Jeff Russo (The Night Of) and first-time composer Tracie Turnbull. With the greatest of compliments, their work reminds of something out of Nathan Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) score: strings and woodwinds working together to suggest opulence, disquiet, and a threatening underbelly. It offers some softness, as necessary, particularly as Ryan comes to grips with the ramifications of his choices, but the tension is always there, melodically reminding us of danger in paradise.
In the Fantastic Fest listing for What You Wish For, there are two tags: “Just Desserts” and “Eat the Rich.” The first implies a sort of comeuppance for someone at work, while the second speaks to the financial divide. In one sense, there is absolute freedom to be had in working a gig that pays beyond a living wage, one that empowers you to investigate different communities and cultures, to enjoy the rarest things life has to offer. In another, no one gets to the point in their career where they have millions, let alone billions, and haven’t done something horrible. Dissatisfied with his own life, unable to know when to walk away, Ryan’s placed himself in a situation wherein he may just get all he’s ever wanted but at a cost he couldn’t imagine. Not only is the joy of Tomnay’s film in watching the narrative escalate and Ryan scramble, but in the way it challenges the audience, too, prodding them as if to ask: what would you do? Life is all about choices and the one’s we make define our perspective, not the world we think we see. So if we want to make a change in our lives, if we want to achieve what we wish for, responsibility begins within. We just have to be willing to face it, not run away.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.