I just watched a special online “backers screening” of Wish I Was Here, the new Zack Braff movie that I dropped $40 on through Kickstarter. Wow, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I helped make this movie happen without any interference from the morons who run Hollywood. Admittedly, it’s a little rough around the edges in places. But I’m actually glad it is. Part of the point of the movie is that we have to learn to love people who are more than a little rough around the edges.
This is not just another movie about death, love and responsibility. Religion looms large in this movie, in a way that the morons who run Hollywood never would have permitted. Technically the religion is Judaism, but what they’re dealing with in WIWH isn’t really Judaism in any important sense, either as a specific religion or as a specific cultural phenomenon. With one exception, which I’ll get to later, Judaism is only on the screen to represent religion in general.
This is a movie about people asking big questions. Why do people matter? Why does it matter what we do? Religion is one of the things at the center of the movie because religion claims to have answers. In the long run it’s the only thing that can plausibly claim to have answers. People like Zack Braff – excuse me, “Aidan Bloom” – have reached the point, in a way far too few of their parents’ generation have, where they see that if they seriously ask these questions, they’re going to have to confront religion.
What I love so much about this movie is that it’s brutally honest. Let’s face it, people can really be awful to each other. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us who are the worst. And it’s not giant, horrifying betrayals. It’s the little cuts, the little pinpricks in our skin, day after day, year after year, never relenting.
You know what this movie made me think of? Just two days ago I re-read an old passage from C.S. Lewis where he’s talking about the challenges of defending the gospel in the modern world. One of the points he makes is that the original preachers of the gospel could take it for granted in all their audiences, whether Jews, “God-fearers” (Judaizing Gentiles) or Pagans, a sense of sin and personal unworthiness. Modern man, Lewis comments – especially the “proletariat” – has been so thoroughly petted and flattered and catered to that he is more self-satisfied than perhaps any class of people in history. They are sure, Lewis writes, that whatever is wrong with the universe it cannot be themselves.
Then he makes a striking statement: “I have sometimes thought that it might be necessary to re-convert men to serious Paganism before it will be possible to convert them to Christianity.” Of course he doesn’t mean this literally, but there is a depth to this statement that sticks with you.
That’s what this movie made me think of. Not that “convert to serious Paganism” is the lesson of the movie. There is, in fact, no lesson to the movie as such. It’s not the kind of movie for lessons. It’s a brutally honest story about people who are suffering and choose to do the hard thing and love an unlovable man, and that’s it.
But there’s a lesson in that, too. It’s not a formally religious lesson, and yet the movie does, in a sense, take its shoes off on the holy ground.
And that one exception I mentioned earlier? Alone among all the generations of her family, the preteen daughter really believes. She chants a prayer before doing something scary, tells her bewildered and uncomprehending mother that “I think God is testing my faith.” She, like everyone else on the screen, has growing up she needs to do. But she becomes more, not less, religious as she does so.
Her name is Grace. But I’m sure there’s nothing to that.
Two generations ago, it would have been the grandfather who had real faith. One generation ago, no one on the screen would have had real faith. Today it’s the daughter. Who will it be a generation from now? Don’t think they’re going to stop asking why people and what they do matter. The questions get bigger, not smaller. That’s another lesson of this movie.
Which opens in the big cities this Friday, then expands. Go see it if it’s playing where you are. It’s a beautiful movie, in more ways than one; worth seeing on a big screen.